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Making Change: If You Can't Be An Athlete, Part 2: Row Your Boat

The Cuyahoga River is one busy place. Think of the hundreds cargo ships that cruise down the River annually - behemoths carrying 7 million tons of cargo each. But this river isn't the sole territory of commercial boats and luxury cruisers. On any given Saturday or Sunday morning you'll see long, narrow boats, bearing small groups of people rowing their hearts out, just a few inches above the water's surface.

Mark Silverstein: Rowing has been in Cleveland since about 1982 and it has in the last three or four years grown dramatically. Especially our adult rowing community it's now up to 400 rowers.

That's Mark Silverstein, executive director of the Western Reserve Rowing Association.

Mark Silverstein: So, more and more you run into Clevelanders that say, "Hey, I've rowed before and I know what you guys are doing." But we want to get more people out on the water, as many as possible.

The association has programs for university and high school students as well opportunities for the blind and disabled. They're based on the Scranton Peninsula in a bare-bones garage that lacks heating and indoor plumbing.

It's functional, but what the rowers would prefer is a modern-day boathouse. A boathouse would be great for the rowers, says the organization's president Peter Gozar, but it could also be good for all of Cleveland.

Peter Gozar: If you could imagine a place where there is rowing; possibly bike rental; kayak rental; and possibly and interpretive center. So it covers more than just a rowing club. It's something more, it's something really dedicated to the community.

Build it like Gozar describes, at a cost of about $2 million, and a boathouse on the Scranton Peninsula could actually be the starting place for new economic activity downtown. There are already 1,200 people involved in rowing, says Mark Silverstein. So imagine how many more would come to the river's edge if the right facility existed?

Mark Silverstein: When you get that many people downtown enjoying the river, you get that many people multiplied who want to live downtown, who stay downtown and partake in its amenities and you create some kind of critical mass.

Think that sounds absurd? Then check out our neighbors to the southeast. Pittsburgh's rowing club, Three Rivers Rowing Association, got its start around the same time as Cleveland's but now the Pittsburgh club has two boathouses. Three Rivers Rowing Association president Mike Lambert says the first one was built in 1987 on an island called Washington's Landing - which at that time was a developer's nightmare: contaminated soil, deserted and with no promising attributes. Things look a little different there now...

Mike Lambert: One half is light industrial and there are eight very nice office buildings. And then on the other end there are about 90 town homes, which are all built out now, architecturally beautiful in the vicinity of $200-to-$400,000 homes. There's a park, tennis courts and walking paths and so forth.

Lambert says Three Rivers' boathouse acted as an anchor for development on Washington's Landing thanks in part to the one-dollar a year long-term lease the rowing association has with the city of Pittsburgh. That deal gave the association site control. In other words, the Cleveland rowing association needs to show its investors that it has a long-term claim on the land where they want to build.

Cleveland City Planning Director Chris Ronayne.

Chris Ronayne: Always the precursor is site control. People are not as willing to invest money if they don't think the organization is going to be there in five years. This is a great non-profit organization. We recognize they cannot go it alone, they're going to need some outside sources of funding. So the first hurdle is to help them gain site control.

The thing is right now the club lives on land partly owned by Forest City Enterprises. There's been broad speculation about how Forest City will develop Scranton Peninsula. The rowing association is hoping that a land swap between the developer and the city will help their plans happen. John Neely - an avid rower and project manager with Forest City Land Group says the company is quite supportive of the rowing association, but at this point has no plans for the long term with the rowing club.

Still, even if a deal ever does come through, the narrow, choppy Cuyahoga is unlikely to become a regatta rainmaker. Cleveland Sports Commission President David Gilbert says the economic potential of the sport comes from the rowing enthusiasts themselves - who tend to be well-educated, high salaried types.

David Gilbert: It would add another dimension to why... I mean, talk about the brain drain - it would add another dimension to why young people would want to live in the city. And it'd be another top recreational amenity.

Gilbert says the region already has the Towpath Trail, the Cuyahoga Valley and the Metro parks, just to name a few. So, he says, it makes sense to throw a boathouse into the mix and add one more way for Northeast Ohio to boost its potential for economic growth. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.