Business Columns & Blogs

Rolling with the punches

Long before airports and railroads and highways and even wagon trails, water was the way transportation was done around these parts.

It was how the natives got around, and it was how the newcomers first showed up when they decided to do business here and then move in. Even Lewis and Clark took to the water when they could find something navigable, rather than lugging their stuff over land.

The marine business – building boats, fishing from boats, moving people and freight with boats – is about as old a business as there is in this region. But like a lot of old-line businesses that built the regional economy – forest products and agriculture, to name two – it has faded from significance in the minds of many people who don’t see or think of it often other than to glimpse a giant container crane off in the distance at the Port of Tacoma.

But the marine business is still an important economic contributor to the region. Like forest products – which we discussed in this space a few weeks back – it has changed and had change thrust upon it. It is not the marine business of even 50 years ago, any more than the high-tech, small-log, engineered-materials mills of today resemble the sprawling lumber complexes of decades ago.

The changes, and the sector’s vibrancy, were on display at the recent Pacific Marine Expo at Qwest Field Event Center, with display booths featuring boat builders and makers of refrigeration and navigation systems, engines and propulsion systems, safety equipment, deck gear, and fishing gear, not to mention the spectrum of services such as shipping and freight forwarding that support the maritime industry.

As befitting a town that has its own long maritime heritage, Tacoma and Pierce County were well-represented by companies with exhibition-floor displays: ABB Inc. BU Turbocharger, Carlile Transportation Systems, MD Marine Electronic, Modutech Marine, Pacific Alaska Freightways, Sound Tec, Sunnfjord Boats, Suppression Systems, Tacoma Diesel and Equipment, the Western Group, and Westpac Marine Services.

The industry as a whole isn’t in robust shape. If you’re in the recreational boat or yacht category, the recession has clobbered your business. One of the discussion topics at the show’s opening was the news that Bellingham’s Aluminum Chambered Boats, an exhibitor at last year’s expo, had closed, despite having won significant contracts for workboats in recent years.

But the industry’s ability to avoid being – pardon the phrase – frozen in place has kept it – pardon again – afloat. Subsectors in the marine business have their cycles; a decade ago yacht building was the hot segment while fishing, suffering from overcapacity, was largely written off. Now it’s in fishing, and after several good years in Alaska there’s capital available for new and rebuilt boats. The workboat segment has had a good run too (especially with boats for handling oil spills, thanks to BP’s little mishap in the Gulf). While there’s been a little business for big car ferries of the sort ordered by Washington state, a number of yards have kept busy building smaller passenger ferries.

Names come and go. Remember Tollycraft, a once significant but now departed producer of recreational boats? What about Tacoma Boat? It’s a good bet that there are a number of retirees reading this column who still recall that company with pride.

A relative newcomer to the industry is Port Orchard-based Safe Boats International, which produces small, fast and maneuverable boats for military, law enforcement and security.

Boat designs and technologies come and go. The marine industry, even before aerospace, was a pioneer in the use of new materials, from aluminum to fiberglass and more recently to carbon- fiber composites. The days of building huge ships are long gone from Puget Sound, but shipyards here are as advanced as any in producing smaller, more nimble craft. Few would think of the Inland Northwest as a maritime center, but the twin cities of Clarkston, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho, have become a center of production for aluminum jet boats; built originally for the turbulent Snake River, those jet boats are now the focus of an export marketing push in Europe.

Being able to turn like a jet boat instead of a container ship will continue to matter to the maritime industry, because conditions will change in the economy as fast as they do on the water. Federal and state governments won’t have the money they have had to spend on new boat contracts. The fishing sector could revert to a case of too many boats pursuing too few fish. But new niches, technologies and opportunities will present themselves to those with the adeptness to capitalize on them.

That goes for economic-development planners as well. Tacoma has seen its own passing parade of shipyards and marine companies over the years, but there’s enough of a core of experience and expertise here to constitute an economic cluster worth focusing on, encouraging and recruiting for (especially of companies pushed out of formerly industrial areas like Seattle).

The tall ships may not be back in Tacoma next year but the industrial heritage they represent has not set sail. The watercraft made by contemporary companies bear little resemblance to those vessels. That’s a good thing. The changes the industry made, or endured, not only kept it alive, they made it possible and plausible to discuss what sort of future it might have (and Tacoma’s role in it), rather than why the industry had no future at all.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at