The inside of Port Boat House is an anthill of activity on a Tuesday afternoon.
Outside the Harbour Quay establishment two men size up a small boat in front of the store. Inside, employees go about their tasks while three fishermen, one of whom is wearing green rubber pants, inquire about boat parts.
Attired in black and sitting quietly in the centre of it all is sales manager Dave Turner, who just finished taking one phone call and takes a break before having to make another.
“Business has been good and has been picking up,” Turner said.
While other industries in Port Alberni have taken hits during the last couple of years, the recreational boating sector has been steady at the helm: and most businesses survived the recession intact.
That fact speaks volumes about the success of the industry and what it means to the Alberni Valley.
To most people who launch a boat on the water, it’s about fishing, cruising and having a good time. You’d never think that the experience is part of a broader business, but it is.
According to Industry Canada statistics, nine million people in Canada participate in recreational boating annually.
A 2006 study titled The Economic Impact of Recreational Boating In Canada estimates that the marine industry pumps $26.8 billion into the Canadian economy every year.
In B.C., the industry employs more than 1,500 people and generates more than $3 billion in regional economic impact, which includes direct and indirect taxes, as well as income and operating surpluses. New boats and engines accounted for $416 million in sales.
On the manufacturing side, $1.7 billion was generated building boats and $600 million exporting boats. B.C. boat builders registered $277 million in sales in 2006, more than the prairies, Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Only Quebec registered more ($1 billion).
In Port Alberni, the economic downturn over the last two years impacted fishing lodges more than the boating industry itself. People need to be ferried to and from lodges by boats and need to be carried about while cruising or fishing, Turner said.
But cinched belts meant fewer trips to lodges, a trend that two years later is beginning to reverse. “It’s picked up in the last year. We’re definitely seeing more people back on the water, getting back out there,” Turner said.
A few new business trends have revealed themselves, Turner said. Seniors are choosing to move to Port Alberni from abroad and are bringing their purchasing power with them.
Another trend is that fewer people are financing their purchases.
As well, people didn’t stop buying boats when the economy dipped. Rather, they switched to buying a different type of boat. “When banks tightened up financing boats the used boat market spiked,” Turner said. “Very few people stop boating. It’s in their blood.”
One explanation for the industry weathering the storm is that boating is part of Port Alberni, and Port Alberni is a part of boating.
“Anyone who was brought up here spent time on the water, whether it’s Sproat Lake, the Somass River or the Alberni Inlet. It’s a huge part of the Valley,” Turner said. “Our lifestyle includes year-round boating.”
Port Alberni Port Authority wharfinger Mike Carter Junior sees first hand what Turner speaks of at the Valley’s four marinas, which Carter oversees.
The port authority operates marinas at Clutesi, Harbour Quay, China Creek and Fishermen’s Harbour, the latter being predominantly for commercial fishing boats.
“Business has picked up with mooring and at the launch ramp,” he said.
According to Carter, the Valley’s fishery is a canary in the coalmine for the boating business. “No one has caught a sockeye in the inlet yet. But once someone has a sockeye on a rod it’s like they flicked a switch and the next thing you know everyone’s lined up at Clutesi to get out.
In a week or a week and a half all the marinas will be busy and will stay busy until August.”
The port authority conducts an annual board waitlist for moorage at marinas. Seventy five per cent of the tenants at the marinas are locals while 25 per cent come from out of town, usually Alberta and the United States, Carter said.
China Creek is the most popular marina for recreational boaters. “Fish drives the economy there. You’ve got sockeye in June-July and chinook in August. And it’s a good access point to Barkley Sound.”
Logistics and convenience also account for its popularity. “It’s an hour from town and fresh water and it’s got a campground,” Carter said.
There are other signs that the Valley’s recreational boat industry has weathered the economy’s bad stretch.
“Alberni Industrial Marine, Breakers Marine, LA Marine and PY Marine. They’re all still here,” Carter said. “Alberni Industrial Marine and Breakers just invested a lot in infrastructure to expand — they never faded away.”
The boat market was busy enough in Tofino at Rod’s Power and Marine that the company decided to underwrite an expansion at its Alberni outlet — Alberni Industrial Marine—store manager Gary Rowlings said.
“It opens a new sales platform for our boats and motors,” Rowlings said.
The industry was able to ride out the recession like bad weather and is confident enough in it that it made a significant investment in the expansion.
“The demand for sales warranted it,” Rowlings said. “Provide quality service and reliability and people will want you.”
At Harbour Quay, workers are driving piles in preparation for the new $2 million breakwater that the port authority is installing at the foot of the dock.
The port authority took the lead on the project, but the city was involved in negotiations for a grant from Island Coastal Economic Trust to help underwrite it.
The genesis of the breakwater started after a powerful storm in 2006 damaged several vessels on the outer pier at Fishermen’s Harbour. Other vessel owners hedged their bets by mooring at more secure facilities elsewhere.
“There were significant dollars lost in terms of moorage, fuel, supplies, and maintenance that would otherwise have taken place in Port Alberni,” city economic development manger Pat Deakin said.
At 410 feet long, the breakwater will improve protection of moored boats and companies may be more amenable to mooring in Alberni again, he added.
But the new facility will be able to accommodate cruise ship taxi boats, float planes and mega yachts.
“Cruise ships will be able to anchor offshore and not worry about moorage. And it benefits Canada Border Service by enabling them to process smaller numbers of passengers instead of all of them at once,” Deakin said.
According to Deakin, the city should dust off and re-examine a recreational boating study it had undertaken in 1992.
Then, recreational boaters argued that the industry contributed greatly to the local economy. Critics, however, said that fishers disappeared down the canal after getting beer and bait.
“It (study) could be revisited. It’s overdue.”