Boating Registrations Swell in Region

Boat registrations in Michigan have fallen 10 percent since peaking in 2003, but the five-county Grand Traverse region is bucking the trend.

That’s not a surprise to Rick Venner, general manager of Harbor Springs-based Walstrom Marine’s Traverse City showroom, which sells new and used boats ranging in size from about 20 feet to more than 50 feet in length.

Business has been brisk since Walstrom opened the Traverse City location last year, Venner said. He’s expecting sales to swell this year, while declining to reveal exact figures.

“We could double what we did last year,” he said.

Venner attributes possible growth to a steadily improving economy and a growing population attracted to the region’s abundant water resources.

Grand Traverse County’s population has jumped nearly 18 percent since 2000, while Michigan’s population was flat between 2000 and 2017.

The region’s boat registrations have risen 2.6 percent since 2003. Currently there are 38,188 boats registered in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties, according to the Michigan Secretary of State. That’s up by 975 registered boats since 2003.

Michigan boat registrations fell 10.4 percent, from 1,006,483 in 2003 to 901,342 this year.

State officials are considering boosting boat registration fees for the first time since 1993 to raise more money for boating infrastructure improvements and marine patrols.

The Michigan Waterways Commission passed a resolution in February calling for “a nominal percentage increase in the registration fees for all vessels.” State legislation would be required to implement the fee increases.

The commission also proposed raising registration fees for pontoon boats to match hulled boats. Under a 50-year-old law, the three-year registration fee for a pontoon boat is $23, regardless of length.

A 21-foot pontoon boat, for example, costs $92 less to register than a motorboat of the same size.

Registration fees would be indexed to inflation and a surcharge would be assessed to pay for invasive species control, according to the commission’s proposal.

Venner said he thinks a registration fee increase wouldn’t have much impact on boat sales.

“I don’t think fees going up are going to matter a bit,” he said. “It’s not going to keep somebody from participating in boating.”

Other boat dealers in the area are expanding to capture a bigger share of the growing boat business.
Action Water Sports is building a new 12,000 square-foot facility next to VanDrie Home Furnishings on U.S. 31 S.

Grand Bay Marine is building an 8,500 square-foot addition to its showroom in Traverse City. Irish Boat Shop is entering the Traverse City market by acquiring the former Traverse City Waterfront Conference Center on East Bay.

Venner said one of the biggest problems boat dealers face is getting enough boats from manufacturers to meet growing demand.

“After the Great Recession, manufacturers never ramped up to prerecession levels,” he said. “Everybody’s fighting for inventory.”