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Get out the boats: Water recreationists help NCW economy stay afloat

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Boats dot the Columbia River on an early scenic morning. Boat lovers have easy access to a wide range of NCW's rivers and lakes, which makes the boating industry a big player in the area's economy.

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DOCUMENT

The City of Chelan last month cut the ribbon on a $3.2 million project to expand the beach area and marina and build a year-round boat launch at its lakeside centerpiece of recreation, Don Morse Park.

The reason? It’s just good business.

Chelan is Chelan because of the lake,” said Charles Sablan, the city’s parks director. “The experience is the lake, the amenities, the wineries — all those things coupled together create a great economic-development package.”

Sunshine, great fishing and lots of beautiful water to explore make North Central Washington a natural destination for boat lovers.

Local experts in boat sales, service and accessories have built their reputations on keeping those vessels afloat in the summer, safe in the winter, well-equipped all year.

And the boaters return the favor by spending money to indulge their love of the water.

The business is extremely seasonal. That’s the biggest challenge,” says Dan Feil, co-owner of Bob Feil Boats & Motors with his brothers Tom and Dick and their sons.

The Feils have been navigating the waters of seasonality since their father Bob, founded the East Wenatchee business in the 1950s.

It used to be the family runabout was the big seller, but not anymore,” Feil says. “There’s no dominant model anymore. People tend to progress to bigger boats and then, as they get older, go down to smaller boats.”

Trailerable” boats ranging from 17 feet to 21 feet are the most common in NCW, where reaching the area’s many lakes requires a road trip, and boat launches along the Columbia River provide access to great pools for fishing and recreation behind area dams.

Prices range from around $10,000 for nice, used family flotation to $100,000 or more for something brand new and fancy, he says.

Government regulations, including a requirement that new power-boat motors contain catalytic converters to reduce air pollution, make it more expensive than it used to be to by a boat and get out on the water, he said.

Washington ranked 14th nationwide in the sale of new boats, according to 2010 statistics from the National Marine Manufacturing Association. But new boat sales have declined over the years.

Total spending for new boats, engines, trailers and accessories topped $285.3 million statewide in 2010, down almost 5 percent from the previous year and 29 percent from 2008, the statistics show. Sales nationwide dipped 11 percent between 2008 and 2010.

The recession and steep fuel prices may be to blame. An economic rebound is slow in coming.

I’m not sure we’ve seen a huge increase in sales. There may be a little more optimism,” Feil said of the ebbing recession. “We’re still driven by the sun.”

Year-round survival demands that boat shops provide a gamut of services that include repair, storage and accessories.

The Feils’ shop was hopping in late June, inundated with the questions and needs of boaters getting ready for the big July 4 weekend.

Their parts counter handles orders from all over the Northwest, and from local customers, which make up about 60 percent of the business, depending on the season.

To take care of our customers we have to stock a lot of items,” Feil said. “That makes it convenient to rely on us.”

Their business differs from Lyle’s Boats and Motors, a Cashmere based boat-and-engine repair shop that also sells used boats on consignment. Lyle’s dates to the 1930s.

Lake Chelan’s Reed’s Marine takes care of business at the lake.

Ownership costs

Experts say boat ownership can be expensive. Tune-ups, waxing, body repairs, engine repairs, trailer repairs, moorage and more can add up.

That all makes boat owners good customers of local boat shops.

The standard saying every time a boat breaks down is ‘Bring out another thousand dollars,’ ” says Rob Eldred, commodore of the approximately 200-member Lake Chelan Yacht Club, the region’s largest.

Eldred, who owns a 27-foot powerboat for fishing and family fun, says boaters can also spend a lot on accessories, electronics, fishing gear, life jackets and more.

Oh, yeah. We spend a lot of money,” he said, adding that high fuel prices have reduced boat usage on the lake. “People want to go boating more and more, but it’s expensive to go out.”

Boat rental, an alternative to ownership, runs about $245 per day at any of the lake’s watercraft rental shops and gets visitors on the water without the hassles of trailering, storage and upkeep.

Membership at the nonprofit yacht club has held relatively steady at about 200 members in the 10 years that Eldred has been a member.

Members are drawn to the club for access to its 87-slip south-shore marina, launch facilities and fun social events for club members.

Club dues, slip fees and fund raising at social events are intended to cover costs and sustain the club, he said.

More slips, more business

Sablan, Chelan’s parks director, says its still too soon to know whether renovating the beach, improving the boat launch and expanding the marina at Don Morse park from 65 to 105 slips will boost area business, but so far it’s looking good.

Right now, all suppositions are anecdotal,” he said. “In talking to the local grocery store, just remodeling the beach and having the new marina is drawing a lot of people. They say their business is up. We’ll need to get a year or two under our belts to know.”

Marina slots there are intended for “transient usage” — boats may stay a maximum of two weeks in a slip before having to move their boats for a minimum of 24 hours, he said. It also has hourly moorage fees for boaters who ride into Chelan from uplake for a little shopping, dining or entertainment.

If you look at the people from the west side, who are almost 80 percent of our tourist trade, providing them with good-quality boating facilities, including the beach and lake marina, will draw them to the area,” Sablan said. “People aren’t looking for a vacation. They’re looking for a total experience, and we want to provide them with that experience.”

Providing a good boating experience has been part of the Feils’ boat businesses since the very beginning.

A boat is kind of a neat thing,” Feil said. “It’s something everyone can participate in. It’s a family-oriented activity. That’s the biggest thing — we really like to see people enjoying their boats.”

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