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Boating in B.C.: The Newest Growth Industry

Recreational boating has $1.3 billion in spinoffs to dealers, service stores, marinas and manufacturers

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Recreational boating has $1.3 billion in spinoffs to dealers, service stores, marinas and manufacturers

Mention recreation in British Columbia to anyone, and among the images conjured will be those of kayakers, power boaters, yachting enthusiasts, and other aquatically inclined people having fun on the province’s innumerable waterways.

So alluring are the images—and boating itself —that they tend to obscure the proposition of boating being big business in B.C.

In fact, it’s a huge industry that has grown by almost 30 percent in the past five years. Last year, a National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) Canada study found that recreational boating injected $1.3 billion into B.C.’s economy in 2016 on revenues of $2.2 billion, and employed nearly 17,000 British Columbians —with boat dealers and service stores, marinas, and boat manufacturers among the biggest contributors within the core industry.

“Recreational boating causes revenue to flow into other sectors, such as tourism. In 2016, B.C. residents and visitors spent almost $1.8 million on goods and services,” says Don Prittie, president of Boating BC—the voice of recreational boating in the province with 315 member companies.

The NMMA report also highlighted the critical importance of recreational boating in smaller communities by noting that the populations of small towns where boating is prevalent more than double during the summer season. Marinas are a focal point for activity, and many towns experience a steady increase in boaters year after year.

Barbara Desjardins, mayor of Esquimalt, says the city has actively encouraged recreational boating trade for decades by ensuring the public has ample access to the water. “We recognize the significant positive economic impact and how it benefits our businesses overall— especially during summer when visitors come in droves with their kayaks and other craft. They not only patronize our waterways, but also our restaurants, stores and other venues.”

Better still, with the B.C. economy firing on all cylinders, the industry is growing. Brendan Keys, who became a boating enthusiast shortly after emigrating from Ireland in 1989 and today is a partner of GA Checkpoint Yamaha (one of the province’s leading inflatable and outboard dealers), says: “Our sales have grown 20 to 25 percent annually for the past three years, and the appeal of the pastime is that you’re not just buying a boat, you’re buying into a lifestyle, one that is all-inclusive: whether it’s a $500 kayak or a yacht you can sail up and down the coast, there’s an ideal boat for you.”

Keys doesn’t expect the growth to abate any time soon. “Thanks to retiring boomers seeking the good life, and newcomers to B.C. with a lot of disposable income, business will continue to be brisk,” he says. “Add the fact that our summers are becoming longer and dryer, and you have an industry full of opportunity.”

But it is also an industry facing its fair share of challenges. B.C.’s white-hot real estate market is causing substantial transformations of cities and small towns, including more waterfront development. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing a decline in the number of free and accessible places where boaters can get to the water,” says Prittie.

Plus, as is the case with many other industries, the recreational boating sector is short of critical manpower—specifically, mechanics. “I have three in my company, and I could easily employ two more full time,” says Keys.

Although apprenticeship programs can upgrade the skills of people who are already employed, B.C. no longer has a foundation program to give young talent off the street the skills necessary to obtain jobs in the first place. “That puts the onus on the many small entrepreneurs who are the backbone of the boating sector to hire and train unskilled labour —which in a lot of cases is unfeasible,” says Lisa Geddes, executive director of Boating BC.

Now that the full economic impact of boating has been revealed by the NMMA study, Prittie and his colleagues are optimistic about resolving issues that impede growth. “Boating has been embraced by the public but not fully appreciated by policymakers in government and the private sector,” he says. “So it’s important to spread the good news about our economic clout: that way, communities and planners will be more motivated to protect waterways and marinas, and government will be more inclined to address labour shortages.”

Wanted: Skilled marine technicians to keep up with demand

Just like automobiles, boats require regular servicing: a tune-up twice a year, for starters, and the occasional repair, with more care needed as the vessels age.

But the massive growth of the recreational boating industry has led to a shortage of skilled marine mechanics; and with no end of growth in sight, dealers, marinas, and boatyards are increasingly in need of trained service technicians.

Unfortunately, when the new Marine Mechanical Technician Apprenticeship Program was launched at BCIT in 2014 to replace the obsolete Inboard/Outboard apprenticeship program operated by Vancouver Island University (VIU) and BCIT, an accompanying foundation program was dissolved soon after.

Glynis Steen, dean, trades and applied training for VIU, points out: “This leaves the boating sector in a precarious position. Virtually every other trade has an apprenticeship and foundation structure: the latter takes raw talent and trains them so they can secure employment and provide instant value, and the former takes these new employees and develops their skill sets.”

To which Lisa Geddes adds: “It’s extremely difficult for the small regional businesses to invest in untrained mechanics and then put them through apprenticeship. In B.C. only 16 students complete the classroom portion of the MMT program yearly, which is a small number and illustrates the need for a foundations program that would increase the volume of people in this line of work.”

Brendan Keys of GA Checkpoint Yamaha agrees. “My business is unique in that we also sell motorcycles and ATVS, so I already had mechanics that I could apprentice,” he says. “Small dealers are facing a real service problem, which intensifies at the beginning and end of the boating season when boat owners show up in droves to have their vessels checked out.”

Boating BC, BCIT, and VIU are trying to rectify a number of administrative issues pertaining to the need for a foundation. Namely, they are encouraging the formal distinction between the needs of the recreational boating industry with those of the industrial marine sector; and they are working directly with the Industry Training Authority (ITA) to make a case for a foundation program to be developed and offered at VIU and at BCIT in the Lower Mainland.

“Ironically, before the original foundation was dissolved we received funding to build a facility on campus to house the program, and that building is being constructed as we speak,” says Steen.

Steen is cautiously optimistic that a foundation will be re-established sooner than later. “I think we’re making good progress with the ITA, and we have an existing program that can be enhanced in order to transform it into a foundation program,” she says.

Waterways access calls for relationship building

B.C. is a recreational boating paradise, but it’s also a mecca for real estate development on an unprecedented scale— and in some cases, the two don’t mix well.

For example, a proposed redevelopment of the waterfront in West Vancouver’s Ambleside neighbourhood has resulted in the city removing access to a public boat launch that has been used for generations. There are no other launches in the vicinity, and unless the city includes a launch in its redevelopment, recreational boaters risk travelling across shipping lanes to enjoy the waters off Ambleside. “We are appealing to the District of West Vancouver and other parties to find a new location within the redevelopment for a boat ramp,” says Prittie.

Owen Bird, executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C., points out that over 50 percent of boaters use launches to go fishing and that “more and more of them are being retired. We need to work closely with all stakeholders to ensure a healthy mix of recreational, industry, and real estate development in the future.”

Increasing costs are also negatively affecting the boating industry. A prime example is the Nanaimo Port Authority that in 2012 evaluated foreshore leases for nine marinas within its jurisdiction with resulting increases of as much as 400 percent, which forced three owners to sell their assets to offshore investors.

The remaining owners formed the Nanaimo Marine Association to lobby against what they think is an unfair assessment of marinas. “You can’t compare marinas sitting on the water to waterfront real estate,” says NMA spokesman Odai Sirri. “A much fairer mechanism is used by the province, whereby foreshore leases are established based on four percent of the business’s gross potential income.”

Prittie concludes: “I suspect that as more decision-makers in the province become aware of how important recreational boating is to our economy, the more easily these and other challenges will be resolved.

“We will continue to promote our industry by working with stakeholders and government bodies, and ensure that even greater numbers of British Columbians enjoy this wonderful natural resource.”