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Boathouse redesign leaves rowing club in limbo

Thursday, September 17, 2009 by Michael Mmay

The boathouse that sits at the mouth of Waller Creek on Ladybird Lake has been home to the Austin Rowing Club for more than two decades. But the construction of the Waller Creek tunnel means the boathouse will have to redesigned – and the Parks and Recreation Department has asked the Austin Rowing Club to respond to an upcoming request for proposal, or RFP, and justify their bid to manage the facility.


The process has been an emotional roller coaster for the rowing club members. The nonprofit provides boat access, classes and competition for it’s members, and has enjoyed using the city-owned boathouse, rent free, since 1988. It became clear a couple years ago that the boathouse would have to be rebuilt, and, at first, the assumption was the boathouse would remain essentially the same, with the rowing club the primary tenant. 


But as the discussions moved forward, people involved in the process began to ask whether giving a members-only club exclusive use of a public building was the best use of the millions that will be invested in the site. Sara Hensley took over at PARD, and staff started to review the agreement the city had with the rowing club, and realized that the city was not obligated to provide the club with a new boathouse. This week, PARD released a timeline for the RFP, which won’t be released until 2010.


“It’s been a little stressful,” says Elizabeth Gardner, president of the Austin Rowing Club. “It’s hard to plan that far ahead, to start with the budgeting and fundraising we will have to do to manage the new facility. It’s scary not knowing what the outcome will be. It would have been much simpler to renegotiate our current agreement.”


Despite the uncertainty, there seems to be broad agreement that the new building will house a boathouse, this one with expanded kayaking and canoeing rentals, as well as a concession stand, like a coffee shop. “We want to make Waller Creek and Ladybird Lake a world class destination for both residents and tourists,” says Council Member Sheryl Cole. “We believe that the rowing club will be part of the new facility, but we want, at the same time, for it to be a public facility that many groups can enjoy.”


Jeb Boyt is an attorney on the Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee. He believes the new boathouse is a great opportunity to create a more public space on Ladybird Lake. “We want to create a distinctive space,” he says. “It will be great to have concessions, a nice deck for people to enjoy the lake and space for the rowing club to do training. I think we can come to an outcome that won’t screw over the rowing club. There’s no need for a pointless knockdown fight over this.”


Sam Archer, who is on the committee and is also a member of the rowing club, also believes that it’s possible to keep the club in the boathouse, and serve the public at large. “The rowing club has made Austin a showcase for the sport of rowing,” he says. “It has hosted national competitions, it really is a feather in the cap of Austin. The challenge is making this site both a resource for the public, and a place where they have an entry into the sport of rowing.”


But the announcement of the RFP to manage the facility means the rowing club will have competition. Boyt says that Matt Knifton, who runs the Texas Rowing Center on the lake, will also respond to the RFP. “Matt has an excellent track record with the city,” says Boyt. “He’s provided concession money, and recently rebuilt his own boathouse for a fraction of what we’re going to spend at Waller Creek. I know Matt has approached the rowing club about collaborating, but I heard that they were not happy with the initial presentation.”


Indeed, the competition is making Gardner nervous. “We’re a non-profit, and don’t have a history of giving fees to PARD,” Gardner says. “It’s going to be a challenge to compete. I don’t want to think about being homeless.” Gardner added that PARD has agreed to help them find a new space if they aren’t chosen to manage the new boathouse.


But Gardner says she is certain the rowing club can meet the challenge of serving its members and the public at large. “We are a successful nonprofit,” she says. “We can pay our share. We are looking at adding kayaking and bicycle rentals. We are prepared to pay for all the maintenance and utilities and also pay PARD.”


The RFP is scheduled to be released in January, and the contract will be awarded in March 2011. Construction is set to begin shortly after that.

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