Boat-making industry slowly rebuilding after after recession
By Peter Williams
The Perquimans Weekly
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
HERTFORD — If you want to build boats, you have to know how to ride the tide.
The boat-buying market goes up and then it goes down, and for the past 40 years, Albemarle Boats in Edenton has navigated through both, says Burch Perry, the business’s general manager.
Perry’s grandfather, Scott Harrell, started the company which today employs 65 people. That’s roughly a third of the workforce the company had a decade ago.
“Back in like 2007 we had 175 people,” Perry said.
But that was before the economic recession hit, and people stopped buying recreational boats, and many who owned them tried to sell them.
“We learned a lot of lessons with the (economic) downturn in 2008 that the market is not always going to go up, up, up,” Perry said. “It was very painful when you have to lay off good and dependable people.”
One lesson Albemarle Boats learned during the recession, he said, is that “building more boats isn’t sustainable if they are just sitting at dealerships.”
Other obstacles include workforce issues. Perry said finding qualified people to build boats is an ongoing challenge.
“We have people who drive 60 miles one way to work here now,” Perry said.
To try and boost Albemarle Boats’ workforce, Perry and another company representative work with the career and technical education programs in both Chowan and Perquimans school districts. Their message to students is that boat building is a good career.
In the 10-county region, there are an estimated 522 people currently employed in boat building and they earn an average salary of about $63,000 a year.
Of the top five boat-builder employers, two, Regulator Marine and Carolina Classic, employ 247 people. The other three are in Dare County and combined employ about 187 people.
Perry supports the idea of creating a program at College of The Albemarle that would focus on training more boat builders. COA’s Dare campus in Manteo had such a program when there was an urgent need for boat makers in Wanchese. It ended, however, when the recession hit and boat makers started laying off workers.
Besides Albemarle Boats, Edenton is also home to Regulator Marine and a newcomer, Daedalus. Daedalus bills its sailboats as having a global range with zero emissions. Officials at Regulator Marine and Daedalus could not be reached for comment for this story.
Hertford wants to get into boat building as well but in a different market. Dave Goss, Perquimans County’s economic development consultant, said the Perquimans Marine Industrial Park will pursue companies that build commercial work boats, not recreational vessels.
“We purposely didn’t want to do that,” Goss said. “Edenton for years has been building recreational boats and we didn’t want to compete with that.”
“There are other types of vessels needed — military related, oil and gas related, and that is what we’re looking for. Especially the Navy,” he continued. “They have a whole local of tactical small boats. A company in Louisiana just got a huge contract for some.”
For the Hertford project to become a reality will take millions of dollars for an inland boat basin. The General Assembly earmarked $2.9 million toward the first phase, but an estimated $3 million more is needed. The entire project was originally projected to cost $20 million.