Tennessee Rides Boatbuilding Currents: Although Landlocked, the Volunteer State Is Home to a Vibrant Boatbuilding Industry. Beneficial Geography and an Experienced Workforce Make for Smooth Sailing
Davidson, Charles, EconSouth
In early May, steel girders began rising on the eastern bank of Tellico Lake, a 16,000-acre finger of a damned river 30 miles southwest of Knoxville, Tenn. The beans will form the skeleton of east Tennessee's newest and splashiest boat manufacturing plant. In a couple of years Christensen Shipyards Ltd., based in Vancouver, Wash., plans to build some of the world's poshest private vessels at its new $20 million, 400,000-square-foot Tennessee factory. These custom-built yachts will sell for more than double the cost of the plant.
Christensen will be just the latest addition to the Knoxville area's burgeoning marine manufacturing industry. Its growth was spurred by the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) creation of Tellico Lake in 1976. Two years later, Brunswick Corp. located a Sea Ray boat plant on Tellico's western bank.
These companies have become part of east Tennessee's pleasure boat-building hub. Allison Boats, Black Diamond Marine, the Brunswick Corp.'s Boat Group headquarters, Bryant Boats, Bullet Boats, Cobalt Yachts, Leisure Kraft Pontunes, Malibu Boats, Mastercraft Boats, Norris Craft Boat Co., Sailabration Houseboats, Skier's Choice, Stroker Boats, and Tennessee Watercraft (a unit of Yamaha) are all in the area. The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency lists 15 boatbuilders operating in its territory, including Christensen, whose plant is initially expected to employ 500 people.
The Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley group lists eight local boatbuilders with fewer than 100 employees. Most of the smaller firms specialize in particular types of craft. Allison, for example, makes about 100 boats a year--fewer than Sea Ray produces in a week--and is known for bass boats and speedboats. The company, said Darris Allison, president of Allison Boats, spends heavily on research and development to continually design hulls that slice through the water faster and use less gasoline.
The Knoxville area is among a half dozen or so significant boatbuilding centers in the United States, along with Florida, North Carolina, central Missouri, and northern Indiana, said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA).
Navigating to the right spot
"I can't think of any better place to build boats," Allison said. His father, an east Tennessee resident, was an automobile body worker who started building speedboats as a hobby. But why did numerous other boatbuilders and suppliers gather in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains, more than 300 miles from the nearest seacoast?
Perhaps surprisingly, location is one reason. East Tennessee has plenty of lakes for testing and selling new boats and is safe from hurricanes that can disrupt boat production on the seacoast. Knoxville also lies at the junction of two major distribution arteries, interstate highways 40 and 75. And for Sea Ray, the site is ideally situated in the middle of the company's three major markets: the Southeast, Northeast, and Midwest, said Rick Stone, president of the Brunswick Boat Group, the world's largest boatbuilder, with sales of nearly $3 billion in 2006.
For Christensen, the area's newest arrival, east Tennessee offers a distribution advantage of a different sort. Currently, Christensen builds its "megayachts," which sell for $50 million and more, at its shipyard in Vancouver, Wash. To get its boats to its sales office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., it sails them front Vancouver through the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal.
But Tellico Lake offers a veritable aquatic interstate highway system: It's possible to boat from there to 21 states, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Great Lakes. So from Tennessee--with access to the Gulf of Mexico via the Tennessee River and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which runs from Tennessee down the western edge of Alabama to Mobile Bay--the trip to Florida and the East Coast is far shorter than front the Pacific Northwest. …