Melissa Danko, who celebrates her 15th anniversary as executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey this month, has piled up a long list of accomplishments in her decade and a half at the helm of the organization.
Danko was named the 2015 Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year, an award that recognizes boating industry female leadership, during the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo last November. In accepting the award, presented by the 2014 recipient, BoatUS president Margaret Podlich, Danko acknowledged the challenges she has faced.
“As many of you can attest to, working in this industry is no easy task,” Danko says. “It’s hard, really hard sometimes, as it seems we are always getting thrown some new challenge and some obstacle to overcome.”
Being in an industry that sells fun and happiness helps get her through the dark times, she says. She credits her board of directors, staff and members for enabling her to “balance the demands of work and family life. I strongly believe that flexibility and freedom in the workplace are so important and something every employer should strive to provide. I work harder because of it, and stronger and smarter, and I’m happier because of it.”
The dynamic must be working — Danko worked tirelessly on legislation that recently passed to cap and reduce sales taxes on all boats sold in New Jersey. She has managed and produced 13 local boat shows since 2009. She steered the association through the downturn that crippled the marine industry, and perhaps most notably dealt with the huge blow Hurricane Sandy delivered to the region’s boats and marine businesses just as the overall economy was showing signs of life.
We sat down with Danko to discuss her work and what lies ahead.
Q: Can you start by giving your background in the industry and what brought you here?
A: I’m coming up on my 15-year anniversary, which coincides with my 15th [wedding] anniversary. I was working up in the northern part of the state and moved down to the shore when we got married. I was looking for a career change. The Marine Trades Association of New Jersey has a contract with New Jersey Sea Grant, which is where my husband works. He told me there was an opportunity at the MTA, which was very interesting to me because it was something different. We have a boat. I love being out on the water. Even when I was little, I loved fishing with my dad. I interviewed for the job — I actually had two interviews on the same day and was offered the job. That was in 2001, and here I am.
Q: It must have been quite a learning curve. Can you tell me about that, and then how you must have experienced that all over again after Hurricane Sandy?
A: When I took this job I really had no idea how to run an association. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of knowledge about the industry, so I spent a significant amount of my first months — even my first year and more — learning about the industry and trying to figure out what to do and what my vision was to grow the association. I spent a lot of time learning public policy. I had the opportunity to work with small business owners who are our members, and with our volunteer board of directors, many of whom I still work with today.
Hurricane Sandy [October 2012] was probably one of the most challenging periods during all my time there. I mean, we’ve dealt with some pretty serious regulatory and legislative issues, but nothing compared to that because it was both personal and professional. There was so much devastation everywhere. We were all sort of locked up in our homes — phones were down, cellphones were down, it was a really chaotic first few days after the storm. We had to figure out what to do first. It started with calls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration. That was the first step, figuring out what resources were available and trying to figure out what everybody needed. It took a week or so to get back into the office, and when our phones came back we just started down the list, calling every single member to find out what their impacts were. It was really very different all across the state.
Cape May, in the very southern part of the state, didn’t get hit as hard as folks here — our office is in Manasquan and I live in Point Pleasant. This area was hit unbelievably because there was a breach in Mantoloking and another one farther north, so many of our members up there got hit really hard, too. I spent every day finding out what every single member needed and how we could help. I had a lot of contacts in state government, so I just started calling everybody, setting up meetings and doing everything we could to help.
Q: Are you still dealing with Sandy on some level?
A: Yes, I definitely am. I would say for a solid two years it was every single day, and for the first year it was all day every day. We still had to do all the things we normally did as an association, like the events we do to support our members. We had to do our boat shows through all this, and for example had to do our show in February following the storm, but we still had to sort through all the things our members needed.
So while I was dealing with these issues we also had to address the boating season in 2013 and all the people who thought there were houses in the water — which there were — but people thought there wasn’t going to be a boating season. We had to figure out how to get the boating public to realize it was OK to go boating, so we started our Go Boating New Jersey campaign. We got on boats and brought cameras and started our video effort to raise awareness that boating was OK.
For a really long period of time I was dealing with some type of Sandy issues — abandoned vessels, trying to find money for members — HUD had provided money, but they didn’t want to give it to marinas because they viewed them as exclusive yacht clubs. Thankfully our state administration supported our industry and viewed the marinas as small business operators and recognized they needed help. We were able to get them help through [U.S. Economic Development Administration] grants. I spent a lot of time doing all that.
The stuff I deal with now is lingering things, like there are still businesses struggling through the storm recovery loan process. It’s shockingly taken years for some of these businesses to get through all this. I had a marina owner I’d been working with up until just recently who probably just got his first payment from his loan. And there are areas that still need to be dredged.
Q: Can you tell us about your Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year Award and what it was like to receive that?
A: It was an incredible honor. I think about it all the time, and I’m so incredibly honored to be on this list with such amazing women. I’ve been with the association for a long time now, so I had even spent a lot of time recently reflecting on what I’ve done, what we’ve done as a group, what we can still do. I still want to work hard, evolve, figure out ways to help our members grow and see the boating industry really thrive. It’s been a really hard handful of years with the economic downturn and Hurricane Sandy, and I really want to shift gears and focus on the positive. The award was a nice recognition for what we do and all we’ve accomplished.
I’ve worked with Margaret for years. She was the one who had earned the award before me, who introduced me and gave me the award. I’ve also worked with Liz [Walz, vice president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, the group that gives the award] and I really look up to her, so it was an incredible experience. I’m very thankful.
Q: How is the boating industry doing in New Jersey today? I know you had a really big win with the tax code changes. I assume it’s too soon to gauge the effect of that now, but how is the industry overall in a state that has seen more challenges than most?
A: I have a lot more positive conversations with our members all over the state, which is certainly a sign that things are getting better. We had a great season last season because we had amazing weather, so we saw more boaters on the water than we had in a long time. We had positive reports from dealers and marinas as far as fuel sales and boat sales. The boat shows we just held — the Jersey Shore Boat Sale and Expo in September, the New Jersey Boat Sale and Expo in February, and the Progressive Atlantic City Boat Show in March — were completely sold out, which obviously shows there was demand from our dealers to be in these shows and sell their products.
We actually just started an industry health snapshot survey, and that’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time to capture information from all the members in different geographic parts of the state to gauge how they’re doing. Reports are all good so far. If the weather can stay nice and our members can get their customers out on the water, I think we’ll have a good season.
With regard to the sales tax, I think it’s a little early to determine whether it’s affecting sales, but as far as morale, the tax cap was a great boost. We all got the feeling that our voices were heard and that our administration and leaders recognize our industry is important and that we needed something to keep it alive.
The governor [Chris Christie] vetoed the initial bill, and he vetoed it in a great way because he reduced the tax across the board instead of just for some, as the original bill proposed. That gave everybody the boost we desperately needed. When the bill was first signed into law, customers were excited. I heard instances of it helping some pull the trigger and buy a boat a little bit sooner.
I think the administration realized that because of Sandy and the economic downturn in the early 2000s, we have lost a lot of our industry. If you look back on our registration numbers before all this happened, we were up to around 240,000 registered boats and now we’re around 152,000 registered boats. We’ve lost an unbelievable amount of people. Our goal is to go the other way, so we worked hard to make our voices heard. We had to make our administration aware that something has to be done to support these businesses in New Jersey.
Q: I know in states that have higher taxes that consumers may buy and keep a boat in a neighboring state with more favorable laws. Do you think some of that loss will return because it will make more economic sense to buy and keep a boat in New Jersey?
A: Most definitely. We’re already hearing that. There are other nearby states that were offering a sales tax cap where residents could avoid paying what they had to pay here. I think those boaters will buy here, register here and stay here.
Q: I know you spend a lot of time on the difficulties of the past, but it sounds like you really want to shift your focus onto the positive. Can you talk about where you want to take the industry, and what some of the goals are?
A: The one thing that we’re looking to shift is our New Jersey Go Boating campaign. All the years I’ve been here I wanted to have a statewide campaign that can tie into the national campaign and help grow boating in New Jersey. We had tried a few things over the years, like ‘Bring a buddy boating,’ and it was challenging to find the resources over the years to do it. Hurricane Sandy pushed us forward in that we needed to have a campaign for the public to let them know that boating was alive and well and that the waterways were open. We did it quickly, but it came together nicely, so we were able to get a website developed, social media pages and develop GoBoatingNJ.org.
Now we’re transitioning to use that platform to highlight boating destinations in New Jersey, provide places to dock and dine, fun things you can do on the water with your family and are trying to develop a real true campaign similar to Go Boating, but more localized. And we use a lot of the great resources from that campaign here, as well. We’re redeveloping our website right now, and we’re doing a big social media push through Facebook and Twitter.
Legislatively I want to strengthen some of our relationships by having more face-to-face meetings, and even getting some local officials out on the water to talk about issues, our waterway challenges, and discuss what our industry still needs.
I’m really trying to focus hard on growing our membership. It’s so challenging to get the word out there to people who are not members about how important it is to belong to the state marine trade association. If we have more members, we have a stronger voice and can do more to help them. There are so many benefits we can offer that they may not even be aware of.
For example, we have a regulatory issue that we’ve been dealing with for a long time regarding storm water permits. Because of our relationship with our state government they came to us, and we’re working with them on a compliance assistance program.
Q: What does your membership look like? I know it varies from state to state.
A: A little more than 50 percent are marinas, and many of the marinas around us are also dealers. The other half is boating retailers, boating publications, manufacturers and distributors, so we have a pretty diverse mix. We try really hard to communicate with all our members. We have a geographically diverse board of directors, with 20 directors located all over the state. We try hard to talk about all the issues. The thing I struggle with the most is, I wish we had more staff and more resources to solve every issue for every one of our members.
Sometimes it’s challenging, so we really focus on big issues and assist other members with contacts and places they can turn for assistance. I think our health snapshot survey will help, too, because we ask what specific issues each business is facing. It should help us track challenges faced by different regions of the state.
Q: What do they say are the biggest issues or challenges?
A: Dredging is big. Obviously regulatory issues have a significant impact on our businesses. Ethanol has been a big issue. Competition from other industries, in terms of loss of boaters, loss of customers, has been a big issue. We’ve lost a significant number of boaters.
Q: What are some of the issues you see the industry facing in New Jersey and in general?
A: I’d reaffirm a lot of those. We are surprisingly dealing with the public access issue again, something we’ve been dealing with for over 10 years. It’s an access-to-waterfront issue that marinas are part of because we are affected by those coastal rules.
Dredging is an incredibly complex issue for us because not only do our state and federal channels need dredging, but our marinas also need dredging, and the cost to do that is so high. And finding places for the materials to go is challenging.
We also really need to work hard to get more people out on the water, get our registration numbers up and increase sales. Government-regulation taxes, cost-of-doing-business taxes — it’s a big list.
Q: When you talk about registration numbers, that seems to mirror the overall industry. Younger people cite time and money as deterrents to buying a boat. How do you move the needle?
A: Those are enormous issues. The industry sees them across the country, and we are seeing them here, too. Boaters are aging out, our demographic is changing, and that’s why I think it’s more critical now to really focus on our Go Boating campaign and helping to get people here in New Jersey out on the water. We need to talk about affordability and how they can get into boating or get back to boating if they’ve left the industry.
I have two little ones now, ages 10 and 6, and I think one of the greatest challenges is time. We compete with youth activities and sports year-round, every weekend, all summer long, so that limits families’ time out on the water. I don’t know how to fix that, but I see opportunities to talk about it and give examples of kids being active in sports, like our kids are, but we look forward to the summer so we can take time as a family and get out on the water.
We have to look at the changing world we live in. My daughter just joined the travel soccer team, and she has games every weekend. We look at the calendar and we try to see what we can fit in around those things. I can certainly see that getting even harder. I think we have to look at that and figure out how to work with those challenges of family life and help people figure out where boating fits.
Q: Yes, more demanding youth activities, and then you have the fact that two working parents is almost the norm these days, whereas 20 years ago not as much.
A: I really think time is an enormous factor for boating. But I see it as: I can’t wait to get our boat in the water and get our kids out there. Now that they’re getting bigger, it’s awesome. They absolutely love every single second they’re on it. We take them fishing — they love it and they look forward to it.
I think that’s something everyone needs to realize. It’s an amazing opportunity for families to come together. As far as cost, there are so many ways to make it more affordable. The industry has done a good job, but I think everyone needs to come together to find ways to make boating more affordable — dealers, marinas, everybody. I like the idea of bringing a buddy boating. I mentioned we’d done ‘Bring a buddy boating’ days. I think that’s important. My husband and I talk about inviting friends out on our boat with us. I always want to get people out on the water. I think that’s a great opportunity.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.