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Southwest Fla. Boating Industry ‘Back on Track’

In an old industrial building where Wellcraft once made the Scarab cigarette boats made famous on 1980s TV show “Miami Vice,” the centerpiece these days is a giant robotic router.

As reported by the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald Tribune, the four-legged mechanical monster sprawls over a 20-foot-long chunk of high-density foam that will ultimately define the deck of a freshly designed yacht.

The current activity stands in stark contrast to recent years, and is a potent symbol of how far the region’s boat building industry — one of Southwest Florida’s most important historic drivers — has come.

Throughout the Great Recession and its aftermath, from 2009 until last year, the old Wellcraft complex — 35 acres and 350,000 square feet of buildings — stood empty. Its parent company had moved operations to Michigan.

Along with Chris-Craft Corp., which furloughed the remainder of a shrunken workforce in late 2008, and Donzi Marine, which pulled up stakes for North Carolina in 2010, the empty Wellcraft complex stood as a powerful reminder of the demise of local boat building.

“Chris-Craft and Wellcraft were definitely big production guys,” said Wylie Nagler, the founder and head of the Bradenton-based Yellowfin Yachts, which has emerged as a major player regionally.

“There were a lot of vendors that they kept alive,” he added. “When they plummeted, a lot of those guys went out of business.”

Before the economic downturn began in 2007, boat building accounted for roughly 2,000 direct paychecks in the region. Today, it’s about a quarter that figure.

Countless others, from teak deck makers to welders to electrical system outfitters, got hammered as well.

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