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Powerboat show is awash in optimism despite effects of recession, luxury tax


For most people, the 45-foot Bayliner with the airy salon, fully stocked galley with microwave and master stateroom with its own stereo system, tub and shower on display near City Dock in Annapolis yesterday is just a fantasy.

But the yacht, one of hundreds tied up for the 21st annual U.S. Powerboat Show, had fulfilled someone's dream. Next to its $315,495 price tag was a large "Sold" sign.

And by the end of the day yesterday Tidewater Yacht Sales Inc. had sold another.

John R. Atherton, president of Tidewater, a Portsmouth, Va., dealer of Bayliner and boats priced from $120,000 to $320,000, wasn't surprised, despite the lingering recession.

"We're having a tremendous year," he said. "If I did any better, I couldn't stand it."

The powerboat show, known as the world's largest in-the-water show, opened yesterday to boat dealers and anyone willing to pay the $20 ticket price. It features everything from 20-foot runabouts to 80-foot luxury yachts.

Not all the exhibitors were as optimistic as Mr. Atherton, but many seemed determined to put the double whammy of the recession and the luxury tax on boats behind them.

Industry analysts have estimated that the 10 percent tax on boats worth more than $100,000 cost the industry some 20,000 jobs when manufacturers and dealers folded or cut back production.

Some dealers say they've sensed a change in the attitudes of their customers now that President Bush has vetoed a bill that contained provisions to repeal the tax.

"They're saying they might as well buy now, because [the tax] will be in here for a while," said Rick Paul, mechanical systems director for Sabre Marine, a Maine manufacturer of sailboats and powerboats.

Others complained of tough economic times but said they see some hope.

"Everyone has felt the recession, but we're surviving," said Pat Boyd, of Florida Marina and Boat Sales in Pasadena.

Charlie Walles, president of Post Yachts, a New Jersey manufacturer of fiberglass sportfishing boats, said his company's sales plummeted from an average of 40 boats a year to eight in the past two years. But he has seen improvement in the past four months.

"Things have been down this year, but it's looking up," said Eugene Evans, whose Crisfield-based company builds workboats and workboat-style pleasure boats. "We're getting a lot more phone calls. People are getting away from expensive yachts. If they want a boat for their family to fish in, they'll get this style."

While predicting a large turnout for the show, which runs through Monday, organizers were still basking in the success of last weekend's U.S. Sailboat Show at City Dock.

"It went very, very well," said Jeff Holland, spokesman. "The difference in attitude between this year and last year is like the difference between night and day.

"We had great crowds and everybody seemed to be buying a lot of stuff -- boats and accessories and equipment."

Dealers displayed 165 boats in the water -- the same as last year's show, Holland said. But for the first time in several years, boat show organizers sold out the rest of the exhibit space.

"That indicates we could see some resurgence in at least the boating sector of the economy," Mr. Holland said.

Glenn M. Carey, regional manager of First New England Financial, a unit of GE Capital, said the sailboat show generated business from people who bought or refinanced boats.

Despite perceptions that no one will finance a boat loan, Mr. Carey said, "the money is available, but fewer lenders are making boat loans."

Mr. Holland estimated that the two boat shows will have drawn about 80,000 people, which may be a reasonable estimate, if hotel room sellouts are any indication.

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