Wave of newcomers joins Treasure Coast’s expanding boating industry
Companies cite port location, a skilled workforce as reasons for moving to the area
BY BERNIE WOODALL
Explosive growth in the marine industry in the past decade has made the Treasure Coast the third-largest area in the United States in terms of the economic impact of recreational boating.
The area’s two largest builders, Maverick Boat Group and Pursuit Boats, now with the same corporate parent, each employ more than 400 full-time workers in neighboring plants in Fort Pierce.
The area’s boating strength is expected to continue. There are about two dozen boat manufacturers making more than 30 brands at small and large plants from Stuart to Sebastian. They are about to be joined by two game-changing newcomers: Derecktor Shipyards and Contender Boats.
Derecktor Shipyards is expected to open in May with the world’s largest mobile boat lift at the century-old Port of Fort Pierce, which could make Fort Pierce a center for some of the world’s most expensive mega-yachts and large sailing yachts. The $6.5 million, 85-foot-tall boat lift will be capable of lifting yachts up to 250 feet long and weighing up to 1,500 tons, according to Justin Beard, Derecktor Fort Pierce marketing manager.
Beard said it was a combination of factors that led the company to bring its game-changing boat hoist with repair and refit yard to Fort Pierce. The port is pretty much a 3-nautical-mile straight shot to the Fort Pierce Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean. Also, there are no overhead obstructions from the ocean to the port, meaning it can handle the taller sailing vessels. Derecktor has locations in New York and Dania Beach in Broward County. The 74-year-old company has signed a 75-year-lease for the port.
“This is going to be a huge economic benefit for the whole area,” Bob Chew, a salesman for Stuart Boatworks, said. Even a company that makes boats shorter than 30 feet long like his will feel the effect of the new lift and shipyard.
“Maybe the owners of those yachts won’t be there, but their crews will be, and so will the people who refit and repair their yachts,” Chew said. “And they’ll hire local people to do some of the work. And the out-of-town crews will rent hotel rooms, eat at restaurants and on and on.”
GROWTH ON THE HORIZON
By May 2022, when the huge mobile boat hoist is fully operational, the estimated annual tax revenue will be $800,000, which is expected to rise to $1.5 million by year four, Beard said.
“It’s going to spur a lot of new economic growth in the area and is also going to increase the footprint of [yachting] services in South Florida. Palm Beach down to Miami is sort of the center for the yacht world in the U.S. and some of the most accomplished and technically skilled tradespeople are located in those areas.
“Bringing a yard like Fort Pierce online will extend that market north and it will help spur not only the local economy but the Florida economy,” Beard continued. “We’re going to be able to accommodate boats that normally don’t come to the U.S. We’re looking into bringing an entirely different market that doesn’t come here now because there’s not been the opportunity to get service work done. There are only four sailing yachts in the world we will not be able to haul with this lift.”
Some of the yachts being serviced at Derecktor Fort Pierce will be there for just a few weeks and some for a year. Some boats will get mild maintenance and others a major overhaul or new construction. Some of the yachts that will come to Fort Pierce could fit into a James Bond movie.
Beard said Derecktor Fort Pierce will have about 30 to 40 full-time workers by May 2022 and perhaps as many as 150 in five years. Even more will be subcontractor tradespeople and craftspeople working on the yachts. Derecktor will seek to expand its network of subcontractors to include those from the Treasure Coast.
Derecktor will be able to host eight big boats at the shipyard at a time, but Beard explained that work will begin slowly and there will be fewer jobs in initial months. Once the shipyard can handle eight boats, there will be up to 280 people working on them, in addition to Derecktor’s workers, Beard said.
CONTENDER ON THE WAY
Contender is a high-end boat maker of center-console fishing crafts. In late January, it closed a deal for land and a former packing house off Midway Road near I-95 and Florida’s Turnpike, according to a news release from the Realtor handling the sale, SLC Commercial.
Work is underway to convert the 34-year-old former Packers of Indian River building into a factory for the boats that often sell for more than $1 million, even on the used market. The company would not comment on its plans to expand production from its base in Homestead, but a source familiar with Contender’s plans said eventually 160 to 180 full-time workers will be hired to work in the 98,067-square-foot plant that is on 33 acres. The source did not know when Contender would begin building boats in St. Lucie County.
Beard of Derecktor Fort Pierce said there is a strengthening synergy on the Treasure Coast that “creates a Blue Economy” for the area.
Dave East, who founded Eastward Boats in Fort Pierce three years ago, explained that “a crowd attracts a crowd,” meaning that once a critical mass of marine manufacturers is achieved it will foster more expansion, including for suppliers and other ancillary businesses.
The main attraction to the Treasure Coast for boat builders, East said, is its trained workforce, the way that engineers and craftsmen who know cars are centered around Detroit.
Eastward Boats, which makes catamaran-style hulled fishing boats using a design that evolved for the rough waters off Australia, is in an industrial area that has a concentration of boat builders including Maverick, Pursuit and Bluewater Sportfishing Boats. It is not unusual, East said, for a trained worker to work for two or three of those companies within a few years.
“They can hop from company to company to make an extra 50-cents-an-hour and that’s why we have to treat them well.”
The boating industry began along the Treasure Coat about 100 years ago. According to local boat builders, the first company to make boats was started by Curt Whiticar, who founded what is now a marine servicing company called Whiticar Boat Works in Stuart. Whiticar built his first fishing boat in the 1920s and built a few more on what is Jonathan Dickinson State Park in southern Martin County. Whiticar moved to its present location in Stuart in 1947.
East said that there were only a few boat builders in the area, including Maverick, by the 1990s when he came on the Treasure Coast boat building scene. He pegs 2004 and 2005 as the time that the industry greatly expanded in the region.
Today, the area is in the top three nationwide, according to John-Michael Donahue, vice president of public affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. He explained that boat-building areas are measured by the country’s 435 congressional districts.
In the 18th Congressional District, which includes St. Lucie, Martin and much of northern Palm Beach counties, the recreational boating industry accounts for $1.3 billion in annual economic impact, which supports 461 businesses.
The district is behind only Maine, whose area covers most of it southern coast, including Portland and Augusta and the biggest boating economy in the United States, and Florida’s 22nd Congressional District, which stretches from Fort Lauderdale to north of Boca Raton.
And while it may be one of the largest boat building areas in the country, it has yet to have a nickname, according to Michelle Miller, executive director of the Marine Industry Association of the Treasure Coast, said.
One publication has called it The Fiberglass Belt and the Boat Coast has also been suggested. But so far, nothing has caught on the way that Fort Pierce is The Sunrise City and Stuart is The Sailfish Capital of the World.
COMPANIES WEATHER PANDEMIC
Boat builders have weathered the ongoing virus pandemic well, in part because of the robust stock market that buoys the riches of people who can spend on customized boats made on the Treasure Coast. And boating is a safe activity for families amid the coronavirus. Even the smaller boats cost more than $100,000, and other than the larger production plants, area manufacturers build to order. The custom boat builders know their customers by first name, Tony Bonadeo, vice president of operations for family-owned Bonadeo Boatworks in Stuart, said.
“We only build a boat or two at a time,” Tony Bonadeo said. His father, Larry Bonadeo, is the president of the company the family started in 2004.
Bonadeo Boatworks is in an industrial area of Stuart that is also home to Willis Marine, a maker of customized yachts; Jim Smith Tournament Boats, a maker of custom fishing yachts, including one that is 100-feet-long; Garlington Yachts; and Gamefisherman, which also makes tournament fishing craft.
Beard of Derecktor said the attractiveness of the area for boat builders is seen by the acquisition of Maverick Boat Group and Pursuit Boats by Tennessee-based Malibu Boats.
“That’s a huge acquisition by a big company looking at this area and saying, ‘Yeah, it’s growing and we’re going to invest here,’ ” Beard said. “Contender is coming to town. They see the value of getting set up in St. Lucie County, and you’ve got Pursuit, which has long been established here, and that’s a very high-quality boat. I’d put Pursuit right up there with Grady White in terms of the quality and the kind of workmanship you’re going to get.”
MAVERICK STARTED SMALL
Maverick, now the largest boat builder in terms of jobs provided in the area, had humble beginnings. In the mid 1970s, Dr. Leonard Berg of Fort Pierce, who is still an avid shallow-water fisherman, bought the hull mold for a flats fishing skiff and began production at a small plant south of Miami. Berg later teamed with Mark Castlow, now the owner of 14-year-old Dragonfly Boatworks in Vero Beach.
Castlow had owned a Fort Pierce surf shop and then a fiberglassing company called Atlantis. He shifted from making surfboards to making boat hulls with Berg and his son, Elliott Berg, at a dusty old shop near the north causeway in Fort Pierce. Castlow and the Bergs made a few dozen boats in the early 1980s before the Bergs bowed out. Eventually, Scott Deal of Vero Beach re-established Maverick and grew it to include the Pathfinder, Cobia and Hewes brands of fishing boats.
Deal was the CEO of Maverick until January, when Pursuit’s parent company, Malibu Boats, acquired Maverick Boat Group for $150 million. When the deal was sealed, the CEO of Tennessee-based Malibu, Jack Springer, said the two companies’ products complement one another.
Charlie Johnson, marketing director for Maverick, said the company makes about 1,800 boats annually, and that will rise to 2,000 a year soon.
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