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Council waives bidding rules for Austin Rowing Club

Monday, July 2, 2018 by Jack Craver

The Austin Rowing Club is going to get another chance.

After hearing dozens of people testify in support of the club, City Council voted unanimously Thursday to give the nonprofit the go-ahead to negotiate a new contract to manage and operate the Waller Creek Boathouse on Lady Bird Lake.

The boathouse is a city-owned property whose operation and management the city contracts out to the rowing club in exchange for a cut of the revenue the club generates.

The move was somewhat controversial because Council took the unusual step of awarding the club the contract to the city-owned property without going through the typical bidding process.

Mayor Steve Adler said at the beginning of the conversation that he wanted the club to stay at the location and that he believed it would almost certainly triumph in the competitive bidding process. However, he was troubled, he said, by the notion of making an exception to the rules for one organization, no matter its value to the community.

The rowing club’s case was simple: It had not gotten a fair shake from the city over the course of its first five-year contract due to the ongoing construction of the nearby Waller Creek Tunnel, which was supposed to be completed in 2013 but was not finished until the end of 2017.

Being adjacent to a construction site limited the site’s appeal and visibility, said club supporters. As a result, it has fallen far short of generating the revenue called for by its concessions contract with the city.

Austin Rowing Club President Nicole Goad was not present due to a work trip, but she prepared a statement that her husband, Thad Hayes, read to Council members. Goad said that when Council granted the initial five-year agreement, it took the unusual step of granting a two-year extension in recognition of the slow start the club might experience due to the construction. The idea was that the two-year extension would provide at least five years of operations “unencumbered” by the tunnel’s construction.

Instead, said Goad, “We have not experienced a single calendar year without some form of heavy machinery, construction fencing, construction barriers, generators, water pumps on or adjacent to the property.”

As a result, said Goad, the club deserves another extension to finally experience the opportunity to operate without the distraction of a construction site next door. Another extension will allow the club to operate the facility until the beginning of 2021.

Dozens of others testified in support of the club, highlighting the free or low-cost programming the club provides to disadvantaged youth, veterans and seniors.

One notable exception was Matt Knifton, the owner of Austin’s other major rowing operation: Texas Rowing Center. Like ARC, Texas Rowing Center was granted a concession by the city to operate on Lady Bird Lake, although it operates out of its own facility at 1541 W. Cesar Chavez St.

Knifton decried what he saw as favoritism for a competitor that he described as offering inferior and less affordable services than his for-profit company.

Knifton noted that his club was much cheaper than ARC: $499 for an annual membership compared to ARC’s $64 a month (amounting to $780 a year), that it has many more members and that it has made much more money than ARC, yielding far greater concession fees paid to the city: $961,000 between 2013 and 2018, “almost three times as much as the Austin Rowing Club during that period.”

Knifton also highlighted the charitable work performed by his organization, including a training program for underserved youth.

Finally, said Knifton, while the Austin Rowing Club’s concessions contract gave it access to a state-of-the-art facility funded by taxpayers, Texas Rowing Center’s boathouse and dock were financed entirely by the company, “at zero cost to the city.”

“If anyone’s deserving of an automatic contract renewal, it’s us,” said Knifton.

Knifton proposed that Texas Rowing Center be considered to operate the Waller Creek Boathouse. In addition to promising that his group would provide far superior service than the current tenant, Knifton said that he’d be happy to allow Austin Rowing Center to continue using the facility.

“There’s no reason why our 900 rowers and their 300 rowers cannot both enjoy the amenities of this fine facility,” he said.

In the end, a number of Council members expressed reluctance about circumventing the bidding process, but all were apparently convinced by the arguments about the unusual circumstances surrounding the contract.

Council Member Pio Renteria said that he would support the club but emphasized that he did not want no-bid contracts to become the new norm.

“It really troubles me when we don’t put out something for bidding,” he said. “We try to be fair in this city. We try to be inclusive.”

This story has been corrected. The rowing club did not receive a two-year contract extension as was originally reported. They now have an opportunity to negotiate a further extension with the city, outside of the normal bidding process.

Photo by dremiel made available through a Creative Commons license.

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