- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2020

TUEPLO, Miss. (AP) - Guy Conner, like so many other business owners, was deeply concerned about how the coronavirus pandemic was going to affect his business.

Conner is owner of Midway Marine in Fulton, which carries Ascend Kayak, Nitro, Mako, Ranger Boats, Sun Tracker, Tahoe, Tracker Boats and Mercury Outboard.

With stay in place orders and businesses having to close, Conner feared the worst as the annual spring rush on boats threatened to be throttled.

As it turns out, just the opposite has happened.

“We were having a good year, and then when the pandemic hit, everybody canceled all their activities like travel and it left boating and fishing wide open,” he said. “We’ve had growth for the past seven years, and excellent growth last year.”



According to Businesswire, U.S. boat sales reached the second-highest volume in 12 years in 2019.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association said data from the sales trends reports showed more than 200,000 new outboard, inboard, jet-propelled and sterndrive boats were sold in 2019, the second highest in 12v years, with growth in outboard cruisers (up 18%) inboard wake sport boats (up 6%) and personal watercraft (up 5%).

Data from the trade report shows exports of recreational boats and marine engines totaled $2.1 billion in 2019, up 6 percent from 2018, while imports were up 5 percent to a new high of $3.5 billion.

“I didn’t think there would be any way to top last year, especially with the coronavirus, but here we are and we’re up about 25% so far,” Conner said.

BOATING IN HIS BLOOD

Conner has been around water and boats practically all his life. In his teens, his family lived and traveled by boat for about a year and a half, making the loop up to the Great Lakes, down the Eastern Seaboard and back to the gulf.

“My parents bought the marina in 1990, and after college, I took a job as a captain, worked for a big boat dealer in Nashville, then got into selling other people’s boats – brokering,” he said. “I sort of ran out of boats to sell then got into new boats to sell. Some did, some didn’t. Then we got into the accessories business and working on boats. It sort of all evolved from being in boats to filing a need.”

Midway Marine got its start in 1995, and has been at its current location off Interstate 22 since 2005.

Midway Marine’s location off the highway may seem a bit odd, but it is about a mile and a half from the nearest boat ramp, plus the heavy volume of traffic from Northeast Mississippi and northwest Alabama makes the dealership an ideal spot.

“And we’re closer to Tupelo, which is our home market,” he said.

As for what’s selling, Conner said just about everything.

“We can’t keep used boats,” he said. “And we’ve run out of Sun Tracker pontoon boats. We have auto-replenishment, where we get one every time we sell one, but we’ve outrun that. Fishing boats are probably 85% and pontoon 15% and we can’t seem to keep anything in stock right.”

It’s not just new boats Americans are buying; there were nearly 1 million pre-owned boats (powerboats, personal watercraft, and sailboats) sold last year. Also, boating is primarily a middle-class lifestyle, as more than 60% of of American boat owners have an annual household income $100,000 or less.

Midway Marine typically carries some $2.5 million in inventory of boats, with cost ranging from $1,000 John boats to decked out Ranger fishing boats in six figures.

“We usually have about 100 boats to sell,” Conner said.

Midway Marine also services boats, and as owners have been getting back into the water, its 15 employees have been busy taking care of them. Demand is so heavy that service jobs are taking bout three weeks, about a week more than usual.

Conner isn’t sure how long it’ll be to return to the inventory level he’d like, as manufacturers are slowly getting back up to speed.

“If we can get supply, demand is there, and I think we can continue our lead over sales we’ve had in the past,” he said.

“We still have plenty of boats left to buy,” Conner added. “Just not as many as usual.”

And it should be noted that 95% of powerboats sold in the U.S. are made in the U.S., and more than 12 million boats are registered nationwide. Last year, Mississippi was 29th in new boat registrations

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