Drive through Lebanon, Mo. on Interstate 44 and it’s impossible not to notice: the highway is lined with boats. The city has quietly become the aluminum-boat-building capital of the world, and it shows no signs of stopping. Ranger Boats has announced they will move all aluminum boat manufacturing to Lebanon next year.
Ranger is based in Flippin, Ark., and will start producing boats in Lebanon in 2021. They will join a growing fleet of major boat brands who have picked Lebanon has their manufacturing hub, including Landau Boats, Lowe Boats, G3 Boats and Tracker Marine.
“Lebanon is centrally located in the United States making it the perfect fit for getting materials in, and of course shipping them back out,” said Aaron Waterman, the marketing services manager for G3.
Because the city of 14,637 people easily connects to I-44, I-70, I-65, and I-55, companies can quickly move their products to dealers all over the country. With a boat-building history dating back to the ‘60s, Lebanon also has a large knowledgable workforce for this industry. Nestled between Lake of the Ozarks and Branson’s Table Rock, Taneycomo, and Bull Shoals lakes, it’s fair to say a huge portion of the boats built in Lebanon are launched in lakes not too far away.
For Lebanon, the groundwork to become a boat manufacturing center was laid with J.B. Appleby, who started Appleby Boats in 1960. His business was the top aluminum boat maker for years. Appleby’s daughter Diane and her husband Carl started Lowe in 1971 in Lebanon, which was followed by their son Brent’s company G3 (aka “generation three,” later shortened in 1997 when Yamaha bought it). Tracker, a division of Bass Pro Shops, began building there in 1978 and has become the largest employer in the area. Bass Pro started just 55 miles down the road in Springfield.
The aluminum boat-building plants powerfully impact the Lebanon economy. Darrell Pollock, the executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, estimates the companies combined employ more than 2,500 people.
“What we’ve had is a knowledge of how to build those boats and how to have a workforce that became exceptional in doing that,” Pollock said. “Local companies were being bought by nation-wide corporations, and they looked and saw that this was a good place to continue.”
Pollock thinks Lebanon is blessed by the industry flourishing in his city, and says it is a source of pride for residents. The benefits go beyond stimulating the economy, with workers volunteering, serving on clubs and the occasional business donation.
“Not only do they provide jobs for our community,” Pollock said, “they are also good community citizens as well.”
Like so many other industries, boat-builders were affected by Coronavirus shutdowns. Corporations have experienced financial stress, but recent retail spikes starting around May could lessen the losses. One of the top three companies in the area saw a 30% decrease in sales the first quarter, but they expect to be down 20% overall, Pollock said.
G3 boats suspended production in March and furloughed employees at the plant in April due to COVID-19, according to a Yamaha press release.
White River Marine Group, which owns the Tracker plant in Lebanon, released a statement in March that they eliminated 350 jobs across seven facilities. The group plans to rehire employees as quickly as it can, according to multiple sources.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association announced in 2019 that the recreational boating industry as whole contributes $170.3 billion in economic activity in the U.S. Of the 280,000 new boats sold in 2018 in the U.S., 95% of them are American made. In recent years, Lebanon has been producing approximately 50,000 of those boats annually, said Brian Thompson, president and CEO of Lebanon Regional Economic Development Inc. That number will surely grow as Ranger joins the fleet of aluminum-boat-builders in Lebanon.
With summer in full swing, boaters are back on the water. And whether you’re on your dock or boat, when you spot anglers in aluminum boats on the Lake, remember they were most likely built just down the road in Lebanon.