BRIDGEPORT — When Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011 announced plans to build four new boathouses along the Chicago River, outdoors advocates hailed the initiative as a catalyst that would bring Chicagoans to the river.
Plans have been motion ever since: Chinatown's boathouse is already complete, contractors for the River Park project will break ground later this fall, and the darling of the initiative — a $9 million Studio Gang-designed structure at Clark Park with an indoor rowing tank — is just about to open on the North Side.
But the Bridgeport site, slated for a grassy expanse on Eleanor Street near Bubbly Creek, is last in line, with no start date in site.
That has South Side rowing groups feeling left out.
“Honestly, just having some creature comforts at the site — we have one Port-O-Potty and there’s no shelter — would give us a home. We’ve been looking for a home,” said Jenn Gibbons, director of Recovery on Water, a program that teaches recovering breast cancer patients rowing for exercise and mutual support.
The creation of the boathouses was spurned by a $1 million federal grant in 2011 to clean up the river. The facilities, the city said, “would serve as anchors of the river’s future development.”
A Chicago Park District spokeswoman said each of the facilities was getting built with public funding, plus “a range of private funds depending on local and corporate interest in that particular facility.”
The $2.5 million Chinatown boathouse, designed by architects Johnson & Lee, was built entirely with public money, the park district said.
The project slated for River Park has been scaled back “tremendously,” said architect Christopher Lee. It will now be a $1 million addition to an existing park facility.
At Clark Park, the Chicago Rowing Foundation — formerly the Lincoln Park Juniors — helped raise stacks of cash to make the project a reality. Their efforts were bolstered by TIF money and a $2 million donation from the CEO of WMS Industries, a slot-machine company with offices on the banks of the river’s North Branch, Crain's reported.
Though it’s a public facility, it’s called the “WMS Boathouse at Clark Park."
The contrast with Bridgeport is stark.
Where Clark Park is tucked among woods, a riverwalk and a ballpark, its South Side counterpart near the Chicago and Sanitary Ship Canal is industrial.
The property eyed for the boat house was bought by the city in 2004 for $1.2 million from politically connected developers who paid just $50,000 for it in 1998, according to a Chicago Tribune investigation.
The shuttered Fisk Power Plant looms in the distance. Just across the site’s makeshift boat launch is the fishing station at Canal Origins Park, where litter mixes with the native plant life.
Members of the crew teams say they've yet to see any workers for the boathouse project.
A representative from Studio Gang, the acclaimed architecture firm led by Jeanne Gang, said the firm was just beginning to draw up plans and wasn't ready to share them yet.
The Park District, meanwhile, has not offered a timetable for the project.
Joining the ROW program at the Bridgeport site are crews from St. Ignatius College Prep, the University of Chicago and the Chicago Training Center, which offers disadvantaged high school kids from the South and West Sides rowing instruction, tutoring, college counseling and nutrition help.
Montana Butsch, CTC director, said the program was at full capacity, with about 60 kids enrolled for five-day-a-week practices, plus a busy schedule of weekend competitions.
Butsch said the rowing program had momentum — it was recently featured on DNAinfo Chicago and later in a front-page Sunday Chicago Tribune story — and CBS National News plans to air a segment on the team.
Next month, the group will host its second "Tough Cup" at their launch site, complete with food trucks and a race from the Pulaski Road bridge to the Damen Avenue bridge to showcase the teams.
Yet the program is maxed out, Butsch said, because there’s no room to grow.
Ald. James Balcer (11th) said the rowing groups would eventually have a new structure to call home, but only after some funding issues were worked out with the Park District.
"They've assured me the funding is there," he said.
Of the slow pace of getting the Bridgeport facility built, Daniel “Junior” Izguerra, a senior at UNO Garcia High School who’s been with CTC for five years, says: “Frankly, I think it’s complete crap.”
“We’ve been needing it all these years. [A boathouse] would make us look a legit team," said Izguerra.