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Free Kayaking Group Fears Being Sunk by Private Companies

By Emily Frost | September 23, 2013 6:58am
 A Hudson River Park RFP could put Downtown Boathouse out of operation, the non-profit worries. 
Free Kayaking in Jeopardy, Nonprofit Worries
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A nonprofit group that runs one of the city's free kayaking services is afraid it might be sunk by companies able to pay for waterfront space.

Downtown Boathouse, which launches its boats on the Hudson River, said it's worried for its future as the Hudson River Park Trust prepares to issue a request for proposals this month soliciting bids for key waterfront spots.

"We’re a little nervous with this [RFP] that money matters," said Boathouse president Graeme Birchall, whose group does not pay for the current kayak launches at a boathouse at Pier 96 on West 55th Street, as well as a dock at West Houston Street.

He emphasized that there was no way to tell yet what the document would request, but based on the Trust's budget shortfalls and language in other recent RFPs, it might be looking for a private concession that could offer the park income.       

"There are all these big land developers putting their money in the pie," Birchall said. "We have to compete with private clubs and private companies."

However, "if the only metric that matters is public service, we win," he said.

The small nonprofit, whose operating budget is $30,000 and which relies entirely on volunteer support, also operates out of two other locations, at West 72nd Street and the Hudson River and on Governors Island.

The 72nd Street and Governors Island locations sit on city property and don't require leases, so therefore aren't a part of the competitive bidding process, Birchall said.

But the Boathouse's overall survival relies on the success of the other locations, as the larger launches at West 55th and Houston streets allow the group to quickly stow and repair boats, something it can't do at the other locations.

In 2005, the Hudson River Park Trust expressly solicited nonprofit organizations interested in its waterfront docks, writing in its RFP that it wanted "a low-cost or free community boating component,"  Birchall said.

But he's worried that language won't be included in the upcoming RFP, which could put him at a disadvantage. 

The Hudson River Park Trust did not respond to requests for comment. 

The Downtown Boathouse, named after its now-shuttered location at Pier 26 in the Financial District that had to be vacated to make room for renovations by the Hudson River Park Trust, views itself as a public health service. 

Its fleet of 200 kayaks have served more then 300,000 people during 20 years of operation, Birchall explained.

"Our objective was to put lots and lots of [people] on boats," he said.

The free kayaking shows the river is safe and that lots of people want to use it for recreation, he said.

In Riverside Park, for example, there are lines running 50 to 100 people deep as soon as kayaking begins on Sunday, he added.

"It would be sad if we end up with a waterfront that had no access to the water unless you were rich," Birchall said.