Editor’s Note: The following guest column was written by Emily Rockett, Cascadilla Boat Club member, competitive masters rower and former assistant coach.

It was written in response to another opinion column recently published in the Ithaca Voice, written by Alderperson Cynthia Brock, “Why Ithaca should give public greater access to boathouse.”

To submit a column, contact me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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In her recent piece, “Why Ithaca should give public greater access to boathouse,” Cynthia Brock says that allowing the Cascadilla Boat Club (CBC) exclusive use of the Stewart Park Boathouse deprives the “public” to the many potential benefits of access to waterfront storage and recreational space. While her argument is no doubt well meaning, it misconstrues several key facts and fails to account for the probable consequences of the policies she advocates.

Ms. Brock paints a very misleading picture of CBC as an exclusive “members only” organization. The fact is, Cascadilla Boat Club is not a “membership only” club. On the contrary, most of the club’s participants are not members. Per our bylaws, a member is any adult who pays a membership fee, and any varsity rower sixteen or over who meets certain participation requirements. Scholastic members do not pay a membership fee.  Thus, most of our scholastic participants are not members. In addition, any adult who would like to participate in our programs need not be a member in order to do so. In fact, the vast majority of adult participants are not members.  Paid membership is only necessary if one wishes to use club boats unsupervised, rent a rack for a private boat, or vote in elections. Ms. Brock’s argument misstates the importance of ‘membership’ in our organization. We’re not out to recruit ‘members,’ to create some kind of exclusive ‘club,’ or to prevent people from rowing. Rather, our goal is to get people on the water.

Ms. Brock’s portrayal of CBC as monopolizing the waterfront is also inaccurate. We agree with Ms. Brock that “the boathouse is an ideal venue to provide and enhance public access to the water, water sports, wildlife, and lake views.” We put in docks every year, which any member of the public can use. People launch their kayaks and stand up paddleboards from our docks all summer, and some folks even set up their lawn chairs to fish off of them. I see parents bringing their small children down to stand on our dock and watch the boats launching and docking.

The number of four year olds who think rowing is really cool bodes well for the future of our sport. Birders love to frequent Stewart Park. We see them often in the mornings or afternoons wandering around with their binoculars. Our use of the boathouse does not significantly hamper the birders’ activities, nor would use of the boathouse significantly help them. Birding, as far as I know, is not an indoor activity, and its participants would not greatly benefit from the use of a building that was constructed over a hundred years ago to house rowing shells. Cascadilla Boat Club, by using the Stewart Park Boathouse is facilitating and encouraging access to water. We’re sharing the waterfront, not cutting off access as Ms. Brock would lead you to believe.

Ms. Brock speaks of the $46 per year license fee as if she expects it to continue. Readers should be aware that this is not the goal of the current negotiations. Cascadilla Boat Club leadership approached the City almost two years ago, requesting to negotiate a license agreement that would allow our club some reasonable assurance that it could stay in the boathouse for a period of time, in exchange for paying a fee that was more in line with market value. We wanted to make this happen, in great part, so that we could sensibly invest in helping to repair the boathouse. With the current license, the City can evict the club tomorrow, and the Club would have no choice but to leave. When we approached the City, we knew the new license would be a huge increase. The proposed fee is, in fact, quite substantial – almost $13,000 per year. This is a very high fee for use of parkland. Other rowing clubs in upstate New York are paying less than a third of that amount per year to license parkland and buildings thereon that are in far better condition than the Stewart Park Boathouse. The point is, we’re not out to freeload off the City. We just want to row and get other people out rowing. 

Ms. Brock’s argument mistakenly assumes that allowing public access will get more people on the water than allowing CBC to maintain exclusive use of the boathouse. Removing Cascadilla Boat Club from Stewart Park would most likely not produce the desired benefit (water access) for a greater number of people than CBC already does. Last year, we had over 500 registrations for our programs. To be honest, I’m not sure whether that double counts spring and fall registration for scholastic rowers, but even assuming it does, that’s at least 300 people with access to Cayuga Lake. To accomplish this, we need at least two bays worth of boats, oars, and associated equipment storage. Each of our club singles is used by at least five different people over the course of a season. If you take away the space we use to store one club single, and rent it out to a member of the public to store his or her kayak, for instance, you’ve just decreased the number of people benefitting from the water due to the use of that rack by a factor of at least five. Even if you rented the bay out as a kayak concession, it would only be in use on nice weekend days during the warm weather months. Rowers are out on the water into the late fall, long after most people have lost interest in paddling. We row in the rain. We row in the cold. We row on weekdays. It’s highly unlikely that a kayak and canoe concession would get as many people on the water as we do, not to mention multiple times.  After all, scholastic participants row five or six times per week.  There was a canoe concession in Stewart Park for a while. It went out of business. There is no indication that changing the use of the boathouse would allow more people to access the water. How does reducing the number of people with access to water provide a greater public benefit?

Moreover, if this building is taken over by the city for “public use,” Cascadilla Boat Club will cease to exist. We have no reasonable alternative space that can house a large scholastic rowing team, an active masters sculling community, and all of the associated equipment.  The value of having a rowing club in Ithaca is widely acknowledged. Dozens of current and former rowers and parents of rowers, and even community members who have never touched an oar, have shown up at City government meetings to attest to the incredible benefits rowing has brought them, their children, and their community. These benefits are made possible by a small non-profit boat club that is funded solely through fees and fundraising. Unlike school sports, no taxpayer dollars are expended on CBC programs. And the fact is, if the City decides not to grant us a license, or to only license one bay, we will not be able to run our programs effectively or at all.

So I ask you: is the nice idea of a “boathouse for everyone”, which would surely serve fewer people and at greater expense, worth destroying a valuable Ithaca institution that has done a lot of good for a lot of people with basically no expenditure of public resources? Think about it, Ithaca. And come row with us sometime!


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.