Christensen Ship Yards plans still on course

Hugh G. Willett,

LOUDON - Christensen Ship Yards Ltd. seems quiet these days, maybe even a little too quiet for many anxious local residents whose hopes and dreams rest on the success of the $20 million venture to build luxury yachts on Tellico Lake.

The sudden closure of Cobalt Yachts in Vonore last November, followed by the pending layoffs and furloughs of hundreds of employees at nearby Sea Ray boat plants, has the community keeping a close eye on the Christensen facility, which is projected to create as many as 500 jobs.

Loudon County commissioner Bob Franke said he has received several calls from constituents concerned by what seems like a lack of progress at the Christensen site.

"They were worried that they hadn't seen much activity," he said.

Early production work is several months behind schedule, Henry Luken, the Chattanooga investor who purchased Christensen last year, confirmed.

"We're just starting to build the mold," Luken said.

The mold-building process requires only a few dozen workers, he said.

Once the mold for the $50 million, 180-foot luxury yachts has been completed, the fiberglass hulls of the ships can be formed.

It's only after the hulls have been completed that fitting out the interior of the ships, a task that will eventually require hundreds of craftsmen, can begin, Luken explained.

It could take several months to get to the stage where the interior work on the yachts starts ramping up. Ultimately, the site is going to be a major employer in the Tellico area, Luken said.

"I could have built this yard someplace overseas where there is a lower cost of labor," he said. "I chose to build in the Tellico area for a lot of other reasons."

Factors from the location on Tellico Lake to the cooperation of the Tellico Reservoir Development Agency contributed to making the area a good site to build the shipyard, he said.

"So far it's been a most pleasant experience," he added.

Luken said he has a long-term commitment to the Tellico area and still believes it will become a hub of boat-building activity.

"I would encourage any boat builder, even my competitors, to come to this area," he added.