Ailing marinas rethinking business plans

Treasure Cove Marina in Riverhead is building a 100-room Hyatt hotel on its East Main Street property, which is slated to open next summer. It’s one of many North Fork marinas that are changing or expanding services in the hopes of attracting more people to boating.

Pleasure boating has taken a dive on the Peconic Bays in the past few years, but North Fork marina operators are tweaking their business plans and offering innovative services and packages to make boating a viable option again.

Jeff Strong, owner of Strong’s Marine in Mattituck is altering his business model by offering boat rentals, refurbished repossessed boats and a full range of repair and refurbishing services.

“We like to kid that it’s a lot cheaper than a divorce attorney or a psychotherapist” to keep your boat, he said. “People are not taking long vacations, but you still need a break. It doesn’t take long to get out on the Peconic Bay.”

Mr. Strong said that his staff of 38 full-time employees is ready to help people who decide to invest in their current boat instead of trading up. His marina will re-power and rebuild boats and take on cosmetic projects from teak accents to fiberglass work and new canvas and vinyl.

He is also trying to make buying a boat more affordable. “Over the last two years, we’ve developed a very good relationship with the banks and have processed a lot of repossessions for them. We refurbish and re-market them at good values,” he said.

The marina has a fleet of six Pursuit and Cobalt power boats for rent or sale ranging from 20 to 24 feet, and it offers dockside mobile services for people who keep their boats at private docks.

Other marinas, like Port of Egypt Marine in Southold, have diversified their businesses in the past few years. Eagle’s Neck Paddling Company moved from its location west of downtown Southold at the beginning of the summer to offer kayak and canoe rentals at Port of Egypt, and Hertz Rent-a-Car set up shop there this past summer.

The marina is also offering new options for staying at Heron Suites, a resort hotel with efficiency apartments adjacent to the marina, this summer.

“People are taking their boats out less frequently,” said Port of Egypt CEO Bill Lieblein. “We’ve started to offer a ‘slip and a suite’ program, where people rent a suite for the season and by doing that we gave them a special rate on the slip and suite combination.”

The marina offered a frequent-visitor program this summer, through which boaters who booked rooms at the beginning of the season for five weekends received a lower rate. Port of Egypt plans to continue that service next year.

In Riverhead, Treasure Cove Marina, next door to Atlantis Marine World, is building a 100-room Hyatt hotel, which marina owners hope will be completed next summer.

“Last year, with the price of gas, it was a tough year for everyone, not just me. All the marine businesses felt it,” said Treasure Cove general manager Lorna Smith. “This year has improved but it’s not back to where it was.”

Ms. Smith said the addition of the hotel could boost tourism in downtown Riverhead, where both the Marine World aquarium and the restaurant Jerry and the Mermaid, which is on the marina property, are major destinations.

Other marinas are holding the line on fees. Larry’s Lighthouse Marina in Aquebogue has not raised its seasonal slip rental rate in three years and does not plan to increase its $110-per-foot seasonal rate in 2011.

“We’ll take it one year at a time and see how bad things get,” said owner Alex Galasso. “We’re trying to do a little more to ease the pain. We’ve gotta keep people in boating.”

Mr. Galasso said that he already has enough reservations to completely fill a newly-built indoor storage area that can accommodate 60 boats this winter. He hopes these reservations are a sign that the recession is fading.

“People were doing just the basics on their boats, but now they’re starting to do the preventative maintenance that they had put off for a little bit,” he said. “But the whole industry is changing again. We don’t see a real influx of younger people getting into boating as it was when times were good.”

He said that the marina is continuing to offer a spring launch cocktail party, fishing tournaments and poolside lunches to keep families interested in boating.

Bill Witzke, who owns Albertson Marine in Southold, is counting on his dedicated service staff to keep boaters on the water through the economic doldrums.

“We’ve certainly been affected by the recession, like any recreational business,” he said. “But we were not a big sales operation. We didn’t get affected as much as businesses that rely more on boat sales. We’re more service-oriented. We have a full parts department. Repairs have always been a hallmark of our business. Anybody that needs help, we’re always here.”

Brewers Stirling Harbor Marina in Greenport is counting on its relationship with 20 other Brewer-owned locations in the Northeast to get through the tough times.

“We offer incentives to travel from one area to the next. We have a lot of boaters coming through here,” said marina manager Jesse Gaffga. “We have marinas in Glen Cove, Port Washington, Mamaroneck, Massachusetts, Freeport, Maine. We have had transients coming from Maine. We have people traveling up and down the coast in the fall and springtime.”

Brewer Stirling Harbor offers people who have seasonal slips at other Brewer marinas a discount of 50 percent or more off transient dockage, which, at full cost, runs $3.50 a foot per night.

“The business has changed a lot just due to the economic crunch,” he said. “There’s been a change in boaters. Some are no longer in it due to the cost and some have gotten older. But more people are coming from other areas.”

New Suffolk Shipyard owner Michael Irving was unavailable for comment for this story.

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