Boat jobs to buoy county

Published 7:06 am Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Staff Writer

CHOCOWINITY — The expansion of boat-making operations here could bring 411 jobs — perhaps more — to Beaufort County over the next five years.
Company officials said their hope is to exceed the jobs target with modest growth during the time frame.
The official consolidation announcement was made Monday morning by Keith Crisco, North Carolina’s secretary of commerce.
In addition to the jobs target, the combination of four boat lines on one campus will result in an investment of $5.1 million through 2015, Crisco related.
The move was spurred by a $150,000 grant to Chocowinity’s Fountain Powerboats from the One North Carolina Fund, according to Crisco.
The grant, to be paid in installments, is contingent upon the boat manufacturers meeting certain performance targets, he said.
“The key point is no up-front money,” Crisco commented.
The grant also depends on a local match of at least $150,000, reads a news release from the office of Gov. Beverly Perdue.
The local money could be allocated by the Beaufort County commissioners.
The commissioners will discuss the matching grant at their next regular meeting Dec. 6, said County Manager Paul Spruill.
Company officials said they’re banking on achieving the declared job targets, and they expect to surpass them.
“We didn’t want to oversell ourselves to the state,” Bill Gates, chief executive officer of Liberty Associates, told the Washington Daily News.
Liberty owns Fountain and is the parent company of Donzi and Pro-Line Boats, according to the news release from the governor’s office.
As Donzi and Pro-Line move their once-Florida-rooted manufacturing work to Fountain, Gates anticipates the companies will be well positioned to take advantage of an uptick in boat orders.
At one point, Donzi and Pro-Line had more than 1,000 employees, while the Fountain and Baja lines each kept hundreds working, resulting in $280 million in annual revenue, Gates said.
“Our focus is to get back to 20 to 25 percent of where we were and growing to probably in the $125 million to $150 million range in the next five years,” he said. “We think that’s a conservative (projection). At those numbers, we’ll need more than the 400 employees. That’ll probably be equivalent to about double that.”
Most of these hires would be from the area, he confirmed.
Gates made it known the decision to move was difficult, partly because he and other executives were worried about how the market would react.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, and, quite frankly, I did not want to make this move this quickly because we have four separate boat brands,” he said.
In a brief speech, John E. Walker III, vice president and chief operating officer of Liberty, echoed Gates.
“We feel that Florida’s had a tremendous loss and North Carolina’s had a tremendous gain through all of this,” Walker said. “It’s been a bittersweet trip for me, since I’ve been with Pro-Line for just over 20 years in Crystal River, Fla.”
By Walker’s calculations, eight of every 10 performance boats “belong to us.”
“We are absolutely the king of go-fast products in this industry,” Walker proclaimed.
He also nodded to Reggie Fountain, president and chief executive officer of Fountain.
“I don’t know how to sum it up, but if it comes to speed and a fast boat, Reggie is the king,” Walker said.
For his part, Fountain said he’s waiting for the economy to turn around, acknowledging this has been the roughest patch he’s seen for the boating industry in 30 years.
“It’s tough out there,” he commented to the Daily News. “Still is.”
In his time at the lectern, Crisco told the crowd there had been six economic-development announcements in the state in six days.
“Economic development is a competitive business,” he said. “We need to remember that this investment, as many other investments, can go somewhere else, can go to other states. We’re winning our share. We don’t win them all, but we win our share.”
Crisco and other speakers credited local officials, including Spruill, industry recruiter Tom Thompson and the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission, for their part in bringing the boat deal to a close.