Editor’s Note: The following guest column was written by Cynthia Brock, an alderperson who represents the First Ward on Ithaca’s Common Council.
To submit a guest column, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Who knew that the phrase “public park” would lead to a debate over the definition of the word “public”? Call me old fashioned, but to me when something is open to the public, it means that it is open to anyone and everyone.
The Stewart Park Boathouse is a precious recreational and historic public resource. Prior to 1978, the Boathouse was available to the public for boat storage, basketball practice and recreational use. Since then, however, it has become essentially privatized. How? In 1978 the city negotiated a short-term agreement for the Cascadilla Boat Club to rent the north bay of the boathouse. That short-term agreement has turned in to a long-term occupation of the Boathouse and surrounding park land, and all at the remarkably low rent of $46 per year.
This practice has turned a temporary use into an all but permanent one, and has deprived residents and tourists alike of the ability to access, rent, and enjoy this beautiful public park asset. Common Council is now being asked to codify (albeit at market value) this arrangement through an annually renewing 3-year license to the Cascadilla Boat Club. The CBC would retain both exclusive use of the majority of Boathouse for its members, and also retain controlling use of the surrounding parkland for its programs and boat storage. Residents could become members of the club at $365 a year or $150 a month, or they could enroll in CBC’s 6-hour learn to row classes at a cost of $125.
As a lifelong paddle enthusiast, I can attest to the beauty, majesty and well-being that comes from rowing in a scull, paddling a canoe, or stand-up paddle boarding. As a City with prime access to Cayuga Lake, we should be doing all we can to provide our residents and visitors with every recreational opportunity to personally engage with the water. Membership only clubs with exclusive use do not facilitate such opportunity. In the City, where nearly every inch of lakefront property is parkland, we have a responsibility to manage our parks so that they are accessible to everyone.
There has been a dramatic increase in water-based sports in the past decade – with more and more people kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding, wind-surfing, outrigger canoeing, and dragon-boating. New clubs and special events are being formed every year to support these fantastic sports, and indeed they add to the recreational appeal of Ithaca and the Finger Lakes. Thus, the City’s Stewart Park Boathouse is an ideal venue to provide and enhance public access to the water, water sports, wildlife and lake views. The Boathouse holds tremendous potential — as a tourist attraction with public opportunities to rent canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards; as a resource for birders enjoying the nearby ponds and bird sanctuaries; and as a recreational space to enjoy the upstairs gymnasium or to rent seasonal paddle craft storage space. A change in thinking and management of the Boathouse would allow this public park facility to actually serve the public at large – resident and tourist, paddler, novice and passer-by alike.
Now is the time to decide the future of the Boathouse. In the coming months the City will be investigating the Boathouse’s structural needs, the least of which includes approximately $200,000 in repairs to its significantly damaged roof. Do we want the Boathouse to be publically accessible year round? It’s best to decide this now before we replace the roof. Required renovations to protect and enhance its structural integrity will be paid for largely by City taxpayers, and the center of the City’s focus should be to bring our historic Stewart Park Boathouse back to full public use.
Rather than accept the proposed CBC license and the ongoing private use of the Boathouse, I encourage the City and its committees to do the following:
- Seek a solution that ensures that public park amenities be available for use by the general public on an equal and equitable basis
- Agree to a 1-year license with the CBC so that the CBC can not only prepare for increased rental fees, but also so the CBC can work thoughtfully to plan a change of use of the Boathouse in a way that serves both the club and the general public
- Create a working group to develop a vision and plan for the future of Ithaca’s water-based recreation needs, tourism goals and management, both for the Boathouse specifically and our waterfront parks in general
- Use this coming year to closely evaluate the structural needs of the Boathouse and other buildings in Stewart Park, to explore financing and partnership alternatives to help offset the costs of needed improvements, and to assist with the development of the Stewart Park Strategic Plan
It is time to bring the Stewart Park Boathouse back to the community and to renew the vitality of this beautiful building. Our park facilities have so much to offer to residents, tourists and recreational enthusiasts of all stripes. Let’s put Ithaca’s public interests back into the management of Ithaca’s public parks.