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Goodbye, Boatyards; Hello, 'Dockominiums'
Ted Hood has been around boats and boatyards for as long as he can remember. Boatbuilder, sailmaker and yachtsman, Hood has made a life and a living from boats and the water. Now, as he ponders the future of the traditional New England boatyard, even on this warm, sparkling April afternoon that signals the approach of another season, Hood's forecast is bleak.
"The old-fashioned boatyard, with wooden boats, the down-Maine boatyards, all these little yards are a thing of the past. . . . You can get more money parking an automobile on the land than you can storing a boat," says Hood, president of Little Harbor Boat Yard in Marblehead, Mass., and victorious skipper of Courageous in the 1974 America's Cup races.
More importantly, you can get a lot more money from a real estate developer. Managing businesses that are often marginal at best, but situated on some of the most desirable property in New England, the region's boatyard owners are under enormous pressure to sell out.
Consider Hood, who began operating his yard in Marblehead in 1954. Last fall, he sold the property. The three-acre Little Harbor Boat Yard and nearby Gerry Island fetched more than $5 million from Boston-area developers Ted Moore and Alan Chew. When Ted Hood thinks there's a better deal to be had in selling a boatyard than in running one, you can be certain the development heat is on.
The sale of a single boatyard for residential development can be weighed in straightforward dollars-and-cents terms. Looked at in a broader way, however, development pressures along New England's coastline may be signaling the end, or at least the transformation, of one of the region's traditional industries.
Many of the problems facing boatyard owners are the same as those facing other small businesses. Operating costs have increased substantially in recent years, particularly insurance and labor costs, and in some cases have outstripped the fees yards can charge, even when those fees range between $30 and $40 an hour. As with a retailer whose customers will track down the cheapest pair of shoes, boatyard operators face customers increasingly willing to store boats at cheaper inland locations, or in their back yards, thereby cutting into a basic source of revenue.
Then there are the problems specific to the industry: In New England, the boatyard business is seasonal, but the mortgages on the expensive land on which the boats sit have to be paid year-round. Many yards have existed at the same location for decades, some for centuries; their cramped quarters and old, weathered buildings may make them quaint in appearance, but quaint doesn't mean efficient or profitable. Yards that need to expand to be profitable often have nowhere to go.
As waterfront businesses, boatyards must wrestle with extensive environmental regulations, which make it difficult and sometimes impossible to make basic changes or …