The Lake Cumberland area of Kentucky dubs itself the “Houseboat Capital of the World” with good reason. The region hosts the greatest concentration of houseboat manufacturers in the world.
The largest, Trifecta Ventures, was created by the August 2014 merger of three of the area’s leading houseboat manufacturers — Stardust Cruisers, Thoroughbred Houseboats and Sumerset Houseboats — and their relocation into one facility in Monticello, a city of 6,162 residents.
The Cabinet for Economic Development, Kentucky’s primary state agency encouraging job creation, retention and business investment, threw Stardust a thin lifeline in the form of a $7,500 Export Initiative State Trade and Export Promotion grant for travel expenses to tap the Dubai houseboat market.
The trip by Stardust executives proved successful, yielding $3 million in contracts. The company, which had pared its workforce from 70 to 15 employees and saw its president and chairman of the board working without salaries, began hiring new workers from among the decimated local pool of potential employees.
The merger allowed the companies to consolidate their resources and specially skilled employees, take advantage of economies of scale and rebound from their yearslong fiscal drought.
Trifecta employs more than 100 workers and during its first year of operation sold more than $12 million in product.
Jerry Harden, Trifecta’s president, said the post-recession turnaround was slow because of a tightening of bank lending standards, resulting in many boats being purchased with cash. At a starting price of $250,000, failure to procure bank loans priced young people and families out of the market.
So the company turned to the international market and has sold boats to buyers in Australia, Russia, Finland and Nigeria.
Shipping costs can be substantial. Harden cited an instance where a Dubai purchaser’s 125-foot boat had to be transported by truck, freighter and barge, adding $250,000 to the boat’s original $1.2 million price tag.
Monticello contributes the bulk of the more than $800 million benefit houseboats bring to the state.
Not content with the industry’s recent success and believing the houseboat industry to be undersold as a Kentucky attraction, in September 2014 then Gov. Steve Beshear signed a state senate resolution declaring Kentucky the “Houseboat Capital of the World.”
“Kentucky is known for horses, bourbon and automobiles — and now we add houseboats to that distinguished list,” he said. “The first houseboats originated in Kentucky more than a half century ago, and since then boating has been a staple of our economic and tourism efforts.”
The resolution acknowledged Kentucky has “more navigable waters than any other state in the nation except Alaska, which makes Kentucky a wonderful destination for houseboaters and further supports Kentucky’s boating and outdoor recreational tourism industry.”
Sen. Chris Girdler introduced the resolution.
“We hear about Kentucky’s signature industries, but one that doesn’t get a lot of press or notoriety is that of the houseboat industry,” he said. “The houseboat industry has been a stable source of employment for many skilled craftsmen and at the same time has led to increased tourism in Kentucky.”
One of the keys to Monticello’s success is nearby Lake Cumberland, the country’s ninth-largest lake.
Lake Cumberland snakes 101 miles through southern Kentucky, boasting 1,255 miles of shoreline, including hundreds of wooded alcoves ideal for secluded houseboat docking, and attracting millions of visitors a year.
The lake was created by the construction of Wolf Creek Dam, the 22nd largest in the United States, and opened for public use in August 1952. For the past six years it has been the site of the annual National On Water Houseboat Expo, a three-day festival celebrating the joys of houseboating.
The expo is designed to be a unique experience and attracts hundreds of houseboats from around the globe.
“Before our first run at it in 1999, the national and international show circuits offered next to nothing when it came to houseboats,” said Brady Kay, editor of Houseboat magazine, which sponsors the festival.
“Yet at this same time the houseboat market was in a rapid expansion. Several new houseboat manufacturers were popping up,” he said, “and boat facilities across North America had quickly come to appreciate an exclusive form of dock community — the houseboat marina. The timing was perfect for a show to call our own.”
The festival includes a boat giveaway, poker run, food, exhibitors, prizes, live entertainment and educational seminars. The Captain’s Course teaches prospective owners how to operate a houseboat. Representatives from insurance and finance companies and houseboat brokers are on hand to answer questions.
A unique feature of the festival is Houseboat Row, a collection of docked houseboats attendees can rent for overnight accommodations. The “boatels” do not leave the marina and rates can run lower than some of the local hotels. The boats will sleep from 10 to 16 people.