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Boat show draws thousands dreaming about warmer weather

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Updated: February 21, 2014 6:26AM

Crowds lined up Sunday to see the newest water scooters, cruisers, runabouts and pontoon and fishing boats at the Chicago Boat, Sports & RV Show at McCormick Place.

Several shoppers said the improved economy, pent-up desire for warm weather and better boating accessories spurred them to browse the 500 boats on display.

Ed Deknight, a 31-year-old machinist from west suburban Montgomery, came to the show for the first time since he was a kid because he would like a boat upgrade.

“My boat is about 12 years old,” he said. “I’m here looking for maybe a bigger one.”

Deknight came to the show with wife, Missy, and their children, Lily, 8, Carly, 4, and 5-month-old Rylie, reflecting a trend of more young families with children attending the event.

Betsey Arvai, marketing manager with SkipperBud’s dealership in far north suburban Winthrop Harbor, said she and others in the industry are excited to see the “next generation” getting into the sport.

The average age of boat buyers is 46, and the industry is working to attract young people through outreach programs, Arvai said.

Show organizers forecast 40,000 will attend the 84th annual show, which ends at 5 p.m. Monday. That would be a 13 percent increase from last year’s attendance.

The positive outlook coincides with national surveys forecasting a 5 percent to 7 percent increase in new powerboat retail sales this year from 2013, and a 5 percent increase in wholesale shipments of powerboats to dealers, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, based in Chicago. A separate survey by Boating Industry magazine showed that 63 percent of the suppliers, dealers and manufacturers surveyed said their revenue increased in 2013 from the previous year, and that 81 percent expect revenue to increase this year.

Keith Ogulnick, show manager for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said the improving economy appears to be prompting people to be more willing to spend money this year, and improved boat amenities are luring buyers, too.

The hottest pick on the show floor is the pontoon boat because it’s affordable. It features built-in grills and twin 300-horsepower engines, and it can tow tube-riders and water-skiers, Ogulnick said.

Dealers at the show also cited the opening two years ago of the 31st Street Harbor and Marina in the Bronzeville community, with 1,000 boat slips, for giving Chicagoans greater access to places to moor their boats.

“The city had 400 people on the waiting list for boat slips, so now people can buy boats knowing they can get a slip,” said Jim Thorpe, president of Spring Brook Marina in Downstate Seneca.

Buyers also have more choices than ever, such as a Sea-Doo Spark, a watercraft that comes in five colors and 10 models. It is less expensive than in the mid-1980s because of new building materials.

The water scooters are made of recycled plastic with injection molding instead of fiberglass, and they use an average of two gallons of gas per hour, said Nielsen Enterprises dealership salesman George Gryparis. The Spark starts at $4,999. More than a decade ago, the average starting price was $8,000, he said.

Others at the show were looking to enjoy the simple pleasures of fishing and fun on the water.

Eddie Dixon, 39, a security guard from the South Side attending the show with wife, June, was shopping for an RV and decided to look at the boats. He said he likes to fish, and a boat would be nice.

Kyle Erzinger, 28, a drive-train test technician from Shorewood, and Angela David, 27, a prospect researcher from Joliet, admired the stereo, fabrics, seating of an open-bow boat.

“It’s like vacation every time you go out” on a boat,” said Erzinger, who boats on the Illinois River. “It’s like a community out on the water, and it’s great to get out and enjoy the weather.”


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