Region faces sinking feeling over decline in boating

Boasting 96 miles of beautiful coastline, 500 miles of bays and inlets, and numerous scenic lakes and rivers, Connecticut is a boating paradise. Despite this, boating is declining in the state.

Over the past decade, the number of registered recreational boats declined by 14,000, a 10 percent dip. Recreational boating has a $1.3 billion economic impact in the state. In the second Congressional district, which encompasses southeastern Connecticut, boating supports 2,296 jobs, according to the most recent statistics from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. So, news of boating’s decline should be a call to action for the region’s officials, businesses and lawmakers.

"Boating was hit with a four-tier whammy," said Kathleen Burns, executive director of the Essex-based Connecticut Marine Trades Association. Those four contributing factors are the economic recession, coastal destruction from storms Irene and Sandy and the imposition of a luxury tax. The luxury tax was repealed in 2012, a step crucial to the economic viability of the industry.

While the state Office of Policy and Management recently issued some hopeful news showing an increase in boat sales between 2014 and 2015, Burns said the numbers have not yet climbed above the pre-recession registration levels of 2008. Between 2003 and 2009, the state gained $31 million in sales and use tax revenues from boats, but over the subsequent six-year period that amount declined to $20 million, Burns said.

The state has to do more to address the decline in boating.

We suggest realigning Connecticut’s boat sales and use tax structure to be more competitive. In a small state where it is simple for consumers to cross state boundaries to save money on large purchases, Connecticut is at a disadvantage. Rhode Island charges no sales and use tax on boat purchases, while New York and New Jersey both instituted tax caps on boat sales.

Under tax caps, used in many states, buyers pay the regular sales tax percentage on purchases up to a certain fixed dollar amount, but that amount is capped at a maximum level to keep those buying the largest craft from heading offshore or to a lower-tax state to make their purchase. While arguments against this approach contend such a cap benefits the very wealthy, boating advocates say those largest of yachts support many jobs and the resulting increased tax revenue overall benefits everyone.

At the very least, the issue deserves legislative study and discussion.

Business and civic groups also need to consider how to make boating more accessible. Statistics show boaters are aging. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence younger people are struggling with flat salaries and education debt. The challenge is to demonstrate that boating on a budget is possible.

As such, we encourage the development of more boat-sharing clubs. While clubs such as Freedom Boat Club already are established locally with locations in Essex and Mystic, the reported one-time enrollment fee of $5,500, plus monthly dues that can total more than $4,000 annually put the Freedom Clubs out of the affordable range for some. Still, the clubs offer members much flexibility and options: to reserve any type of boat at any Freedom Boat Club nationwide without typical added boating expenses and hassles such as hauling and cleaning boats, dockage or mooring fees.

Entrepreneurs could explore bringing the boat-sharing to a more affordable level by limiting boat options to smaller vessels located at a single marina.

And how about building on the popularity of paddling? While the number of larger boats is declining, interest in paddle sports such as kayaking and paddle boarding is exploding. The desire for more physical activity and the far lower cost of paddle sports is helping drive this phenomenon.

While paddlers may not pay a huge amount of sales tax on their craft purchases, nor must they register their vessels, collectively the group contributes to the economic health of local businesses and tourist attractions. There should be more organized opportunities to encourage this segment of boaters. Organizations should consider bolstering the number of group moonlight paddles, environmentally focused kayak tours, inn-to-inn paddles and narrated local history paddles, for example.

Boats of any type or size allow people to discover, from a perspective not available on land, the beauty of Connecticut’s shorelines. Once enlightened, most become hooked on the great pleasure of boating.

Southeastern Connecticut leaders can’t afford to ignore the fact recreational boating has a $421 million annual impact on the region’s economy. They must work to bring boaters back to the region’s lakes, rivers and to Long Island Sound.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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