Two and a half years after the Sea Ray plant shut down off Colbert Lane, eliminating some 440 high-paying, manufacturing jobs, the plant will reopen very soon under the banner of Boston Whaler, a boat builder owned by Sea Ray’s parent, Brunswick Corp.
Boston Whaler will bring back 300 to 400 jobs within 24 months, Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said this afternoon. The first boat is expected to roll off the assembly line in the second half of 2021. The city’s announcement caps a whirling six months of major economic-development victories for Palm Coast.
The deal was worked out between Brunswick and Palm Coast government officials over the last few weeks, Holland said, with no economic incentives other than Brunswick’s attraction to several local factors: the existing plant, the city’s alignment with higher education and its long-term growth strategy, and the community’s safety and affordability for plant workers.
For the city, Brunswick’s decision to essentially resurrect the region’s most important and economically powerful manufacturing plant under a different banner follows within days of AdventHealth Palm Coast’s announcement that it was building a new, 100-bed hospital in the heart of the city, and within mere months of the announcements by the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University that they will be opening satellite campuses in Palm Coast’s Town center–a quartet of major economic developments achieved almost entirely on the strength of existing, inherent local amenities, the city’s strategic planning, and the mayor’s unique brand of quiet but relentless diplomacy.
Not only will Brunswick’s Boston Whaler plant seek no immediate economic incentives, but by seeking annexation into Palm Coast–a pre-annexation agreement has already been drafted–the company is willing to pay more taxes, not less.
“The city offers a very attractive component to companies and operations that are looking to call Palm Coast home,” Holland said, “and they outlined what was attractive for them, and we have insisted in trying to continue to get that message out there, that this is what Palm Coast brings to the table and what our focus areas are.”
Discussions with Brunswick had been ongoing for several weeks, with Holland, City Manager Matt Morton, and development director and deputy director Jason DeLorenzo and Ray Tyner’s involvement. The county was not involved. The city drew some criticism in 2019 when it shut down what had been stood up as its economic development operation, finding it ineffective. The approach since has focused on more tangible, nimble frameworks that build on the city’s existing advantages–a sort of table-setting that acts as its own magnet to economic prospects. “It’s all the initiatives, doing the right thing, the community has been business friendly, I think this is really a testament to our mayor’s leadership restoring the community,” Morton said.
“I certainly have watched economic development modernize over the lasts several years that I’ve been involved in local government,” Holland said. “We are much more focused on creating ecosystems as far as what makes sense alignment wise, and our strategic investments are reflective of that, and the relationships we have built and the stakeholders we have engaged has allowed us to quickly pivot when these opportunities are before us.”
Brunswick Corp. this morning announced in a release that it was increasing production capacity at three of manufacturing facilities to meet “unprecedented consumer demand and assist in replenishing historically low field inventory levels,” and to that end, reopening the 225,000 square-foot Palm Coast plant to expand Boston Whaler manufacturing capacity by 40 percent. The Palm Coast facility, which has been inactive since 2018, was designed for the manufacture of large boats.
Boston Whaler is headquartered around its 550,000 square foot plant in Edgewater, where Brunswick employs 1,200 people and where it opened a 45,000 square foot fiberglass boat technology center in 2019. The company is also expanding manufacturing capacity in Reynosa, Mexico and Vila Nova Cerveira, Portugal.
Five years ago, the company was paying craftsmen in Edgewater an average annual salary of $35,000, while paying its designers, engineers, salesmen and marketing staff between $65,000 and $80,000 a year. More current figures are not available.
At the end of October, Brunswick announced third-quarter sales of $1.23 billion, up 26 percent over a year ago, and profits of $192 million, up 60.9 percent over a year ago. The company in its earnings statement referred to a “surge in retail demand” despite the pandemic, that “resulted in historically-low pipeline inventory levels, with only 14 weeks of inventory on hand or 48 percent fewer boats in dealer inventory at the end of the third quarter 2020 versus the end of the third quarter of 2019. As a result, most of our brands have all production slots sold through the 2021 model year, and our Sea Ray and Boston Whaler brands have production slots sold out into the 2022 model year.”
“We are committed to meeting the growing demand of our global customers and have an immediate need to expand capacity in the face of unprecedented retail demand and very low pipelines across all product lines, especially for our fiberglass products,” said Dave Foulkes, Brunswick Corporation CEO. “Investing additional capacity in Florida, Mexico and Portugal allows us to quickly increase production and undertake further vertical integration as we continue to grow market share and engage with new boaters.”
The city subsequently issued a release of its own, where Holland projected economic health ahead: “I am proud that between Advent Health, Jacksonville University, University of North Florida and the Gioia Sails Expansion we are on track to welcome approximately 1,000 new jobs to the City of Palm this year.”
The reaction from Jane Mealy, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission and has witnessed, on the commission and off, years of push-and-pull relations between her city and Sea Ray, was mixed.
“It’s good for jobs, but our issue here in the city was more of an environmental issue,” Mealy said. Referring to styrene, a chemical used in manufacturing boats–the word returned to her a bit later–Mealy said: “When they let out–I don’t remember the name of the chemical anymore–we could smell it on Lambert Avenue, people were getting sick, and I guess we’re going to get back to that. I don’t know if we can contact Palm Coast and get Palm Coast to do something to prevent that, but that’s my reaction.”
Palm Coast will be new to that sort of issue: it does not have the sort of extensive manufacturing base that would trigger issues with surrounding residents. Its industrial businesses on Hargrove Grade are isolated from residential neighborhoods.
In an interview, Holland said Palm Coast will be fast-tracking Boston Whaler’s permitting, and ease the way where it can. “Certainly we want to be as business-friendly as possible,” the mayor said. “I know we have offered them support in permitting needs and assistance in that regard we want to make sure we’re fast-tracking any regulatory issues that may arise in order to advance these job opportunities as quickly as possible. It’s no secret that many of our residents–a lot of our residents–have been impacted by covid in a variety of ways, and certainly losing their jobs has been one of them so I know it’s important to us us as a community to support those that have lost their jobs, and anything we can do to accelerate having our residents be gainfully employed should be a priority for all of us.”
Since it never relinquished ownership, Brunswick continued paying taxes on its Sea Ray property–more taxes in the last year than it paid when the plant was still manufacturing boats: its 2020 property tax bill was $90,000, of which $48,000 went to the county. If the plant had been incorporated into Palm Coast, it would have paid the city $28,000.
Brunswick stock was trading at just under $90 today, up from $80 at the end of last year and $60 at the beginning of 2020, a bit less than where it was when Sea Ray left Palm Coast in 2018.