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Tovo seeks to keep rowing club at boathouse

Thursday, June 21, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo wants to help the nonprofit Austin Rowing Club continue operating the city-owned Waller Creek Boathouse on Lady Bird Lake by instructing staff to extend the club’s contract rather than offer the boathouse for competitive bidding.

Tovo and her co-sponsors, City Council members Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen and Alison Alter, have posted a resolution on next week’s agenda to waive a provision from a previous resolution requiring competitive bidding to operate the boathouse.

Tovo told the Austin Monitor this week, “I believe the Austin Rowing Club has done a great job of managing that concession, and managing the café. And they did have some challenges, as we talked about in the (June 12 Council) work session, early on because of the (Waller Creek construction) going on beside them. You know, they’ve made a very significant investment in that space, they do a lot of good for our community and I’m impressed by their nonprofit program, especially with youth and others. I believe they have been a good partner for the city, and I’d like to see that continue in that location.”

During a discussion at the work session, Acting Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley explained that Council does have the option to waive the requirement of competitive bidding, even though other groups have expressed interest in bidding on the boathouse operations.

The Austin Rowing Club offers a number of low-cost and free rowing programs for both youth and adult rowers. According to data compiled by the club, more than 50 percent of the club’s 300 members are over the age of 55 and the boathouse hosts more than 20,000 visitors a year. In addition, the club pays the highest percentage of revenue from its operations of the vendors on the lake, according to Nicole Goad, president of the ARC’s board of directors.

The group has invested more than $500,000 in boats and related rowing equipment inventory plus $200,000 in improvements to the boathouse, according to information provided by Goad. ARC also hosts three nationally recognized regattas each year with an estimated economic impact of about $5 million, Goad said.

The group signed its five-year contract with the city in 2012 and the parties agreed to a two-year extension in 2017. The current contract will expire in February 2019.

Interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley told the Austin Monitor, “It was a new facility, a new effort, and they have proven themselves to be a good operator.” However, she said there is a good deal of interest in the boathouse and staff is in favor of competitive bidding – unless Council directs it to do otherwise.

Goad told the Austin Monitor that the group’s revenues have been increasing each year. Much of the time that ARC has been operating the boathouse, the group has had to contend with construction – first of the boathouse itself and then of the Waller Creek Tunnel. “For more than three years, construction adjacent to the boathouse truly prevented our ability to grow the business,” she said.

Although the boathouse is a great venue, Goad said, not many brides would want to use it under the conditions of construction, nor would many mothers of children having parties. During construction, Goad said, the electricity would regularly go out twice a week, for example.

Financially, things are looking up for the club. According to information provided by Goad, revenue to the city from the club increased from about $77,000 in Fiscal Year 2015 to more than $110,000 in FY 2017. The Texas Rowing Center, which provides the largest amount of revenues from vendors around Lady Bird Lake, paid the city more than $197,000 in FY 2017, but the number had fallen from more than $226,000 in FY 2016, according to Goad’s numbers.

In addition to activities for children and seniors, ARC offers training barges that allow people of all abilities to participate in rowing activities and operates a program called Rowing in Schools Experience in conjunction with the Austin Independent School District.

Information provided by the club shows that ARC provides teenage misdemeanor defendants community service opportunities in partnership with Travis County. They also provide scholarships and free training for military veterans as well as a volunteer team that travels to Temple and San Antonio to assist indoor rowing efforts for disabled veterans.

At the June 12 work session, Council members Pio Renteria and Greg Casar both indicated some level of support for continuing the contract with the current vendor. Renteria said, “I ride my bike past (the rowing club) every morning and every afternoon and sometimes during lunch. There’s always a big crowd there. It’s amazing how people just really flocked to that location down there. … I wish I had that kind of service in my district … east of I-35.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan and Mayor Steve Adler both expressed reservations about extending the contract without issuing an RFP. However, Adler said he had heard very positive things about the program ARC was providing for juvenile defendants.

Flannigan said, “I tend to always fall on the side of an open and transparent government process, and there are reasons why we procure things in the way we do. … So I would really struggle with doing this as a direct contract, as I would for just about anything. … I don’t know if there’s any way I could support doing that. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t write an RFP that spoke specifically to the types of things we’re trying to accomplish, which is I think how we should be doing it.”

McNeeley said she had already scheduled an item to go before the Parks and Recreation Board in June to discuss how to structure an RFP for the boathouse. If Council decided not to go with the RFP, however, she would be talking to the board about what they would like to see added to a contract with the ARC.

Photo by dremiel made available through a Creative Commons license.

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