Looming rent hike forces nonprofit to seek a new site for building that hosts local rowing clubs along Willamette River

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - A young crew team departs from the dock near the Portland Boathouse to row along the Willamette River.The hub of Portland's bustling water sports community, which draws up to 1,000 users a day in the summer, is being pushed out by a rent hike. Come August 2019, the nonprofit Portland Boathouse has two options: relocate to a building just across the parking lot from its current location at 1515 S.E. Water Ave., or build a new $3 million community boathouse.

President Bernie Thurber says the decision will be made by the end of the year.

The boathouse serves seven river-oriented organizations, providing storage facilities for their water craft, offices, restrooms and exercise equipment.

The lease for the property, originally negotiated with Portland Development Commission when it owned the building, was never envisioned to last more than 15 or 20 years, Thurber says. Despite knowing that it was impermanent, he moved forward to secure the home for Portland's rowing community at a time when multiple organizations were struggling.

When the lease expires in August 2019, building owner River East LLC will be able to raise the rent to market value. Nick Haley, the Boathouse manager, estimates that rent would multiply by three to four times. Although it's been a fortuitous deal and great location for the past 13 years, when the rent goes up, it will be in the best interest of the organizations to relocate, Thurber says.

Scouting new sites

Thurber, who has been involved with the sport of rowing for over 50 years, says he and Haley have been considering options for relocation for quite some time. Although Thurber says that ideally they would already have a firm plan in place, the list has been whittled down to two options, both on the OMSI campus.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Nick Haley, vice president at Portland Boathouse, stands amid storage racks at its facility along Southeast Water Avenue. The rowing and paddling community is trying to land a new home near the river. Portland Boathouse might migrate just across the parking lot into what is known as the Pepco Building. It is not clear yet whether it would rent the building and land from OMSI, or buy the building and rent the land from OMSI. If they settle on this option, Haley says, they could relocate all seven organizations' gear, equipment and racks in about one week.

The move would be a hassle, but easy in comparison to the other option — constructing a $3 million community boathouse just south of OMSI.

Fundraising committee leader Patrick Quinton says there is not yet an official deal with OMSI, though it makes financial sense for the Portland Boathouse to own its own building. Quinton is the former executive director of the Portland Development Commission, or PDC (now called Prosper Portland).

Board members and the newly appointed Fundraising Committee will identify a definite destination by the end of 2017. Haley says they are very hopeful about a partnership with OMSI, but have not eliminated other options, just to be safe.

If they build a new facility, all seven organizations will need a temporary one to bridge the gap, until construction is done.

Thurber says that it would be possible to move across the river and a bit south, to an empty lot. Boats could be stored on temporary racks and the dock used to enter and exit the Willamette River could be relocated for the necessary period of time.

History of growth

All seven organizations that call the Portland Boathouse home have been there since it's birth in 2004. Other clubs have tried to lease space in the facility, but there hasn't been any room due to the "exponential" growth that Haley says tenants have seen within their organizations.

Fifteen years later, Thurber says he still remembers walking into the building for the first time as a member of an advisory committee to the PDC.

"I looked at the spacing between the pillars and said, 'This could be a boathouse,' " Thurber recalls. "And so that happened."

Now, he says, on a nice summer day more than 1,000 active Portland Boathouse members will use the facility. That doesn't count those who aren't regular users, such as those taking private lessons, private boat owners and community members using the dock.

Haley says there is no off-season for the Portland Boathouse. Athletes train out of the facility year-round. Most days, there are crews heading down to the river before 6 a.m.

Portland Boathouse houses four rowing clubs, Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe, the Wasabi Paddling Club, and the Willamette Riverkeeper. Aside from the Alder Creek rental company, the organizations are all nonprofits.

Looking around at the racks of boats, Haley, who took his first rowing stroke in London at age 13, says it's easy to forget just how far they've come. When they first moved into the space it didn't even have lights.

"It was nothing like this," Haley says. "We were in the corner of a giant, empty warehouse. There were a lot of late nights spent just trying to make it habitable."

The clubs have grown in their athletic strength, too. Rose City Rowing Club recently returned from a run at the Junior National Championships. Station L Rowing Club had a strong showing early in the summer at the NW Regional Regatta. And athletes from Wasabi Paddling Club have competed in world championships for dragonboating several times.

"Portland is being noticed nationally and internationally as a result of what we do here," Thurber says.

Water sports for everyone

Since moving in 13 years ago, Haley says there has been a serious, concerted effort to reach out to the community, and make watersports more accessible to all Portlanders. He credits this for some of the growth.

"Rowers in general get saddled with the 'rich white kid' label, but it's antiquated," Haley says. "Anyone who comes down here and pays any attention to what we're doing is gonna realize that. Our boathouse community represents Portland — culturally, ethnically and socioeconomically."

Thurber says that this is not an accident — it's one of their missions.

Since 2004, Portland Boathouse has been working with New Avenues for Youth, which provides support and rehabilitation for homeless and at-risk youth, by doing workshops and camps.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: OLIVIA SANCHEZ - Youth rowers carry their boat to the dock near the Portland Boathouse, to start their summertime workout. This summer, Rose City Rowing Club, which Haley coaches, is hosting a free, three-week, learn-to-row camp for North Portland middle schoolers. Haley says they have also partnered with the Boys and Girls Club and other groups in the past.

Haley, whose involvement in the sport now spans more than 30 years, loves being surrounded with the energy and enthusiasm that young rowers bring to the waterfront.

"I can't imagine going to a regular job when I could be coming here," Haley says. "The sport is very beautiful."

According to Thurber, many clubs have similar stories of bringing the community together, and many offer scholarships.

For them, it's worth it. They believe that the challenges and benefits people reap from water sports are invaluable.

Regardless of whether they move into the Pepco building, or find a temporary home while a new facility is being built, Portland Boathouse leaders say it will continue to be a strong anchor in the community, and a great place for people of all ages to get involved with watersports on the river.

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