Save Jack’s Boathouse

Photo by TrailVoice.

Over the holiday, unless you were totally checked out from DC news, you probably heard about the sudden eviction notice sent to the owner of Jack’s Boathouse from the National Park Service (which owns the land the boathouse sits on).

Despite the busy time of year, hundreds of devoted customers came to the defense of their cherished summertime haunt. In response to the outcry, NPS put the eviction plans on hold. This gave hope to Jack’s owner, Paul Simkin, but it hardly lifted the cloud of uncertainty.

After the stay was granted, NPS began to explain their side of the story. Apparently the lease is old and outdated. Simkin isn’t even on it. (Simkin took over control of Jack’s after his previous partner, Frank Baxter, passed away in 2009. Frank’s father was Jack Baxter, an ex-DC cop who started the boathouse in 1945.)

NPS explained that they were simply reviewing the contract and trying to “regularize” boathouse services. What that means is that NPS generally uses a concession-style agreement for its parks. So unlike Jack’s, which simply leases the space and runs its business, most business on NPS land don’t pay rent but pay a portion of their revenues to NPS.

NPS explained that it wants to keep a boathouse here (although they didn’t specify the exact location), it’s just that they want to shift it to a concession contract. But it’s not a simple matter of changing Simkin’s relationship with NPS; it would need to be bid out.

And there’s the rub.

Most people believe that NPS simply wants to turn Jack’s operations over to its favorite concessionaire for the Capital region: Guest Services International, Inc. (“GSI”). If you have time, read Lydia DePillis’s Citypaper swansong detailing the problems with NPS’s agreements with GSI and how poor GSI performs its task (and how it prevents others from doing what it can’t be bothered to do itself).

In short: GSI sucks. It’s a massive and bloated government contractor that has suckled at the teat of NPS for too long, knowing that it can get by with offering lame offerings since most of its customers are tourists.

Jack’s under Simkin, on the other hand, has proven itself nimble at responding to a massive increase in demand for its services. Simkin estimates that he’s grown his business to 72,000 customers a season.

And ever notice those weird surf board like things people seems to be riding these days? They’re called stand up paddleboards (GM’s a big fan). Just a few years ago, they were hardly ever seen on the river. After interest in them grew, Jack’s responded quickly. Now ever summer afternoon they dot the Potomac. All thanks to Jack’s recognizing a demand and meeting it.

Been to the Tidal Basin recently? Been there ever? It hasn’t changed. They still offer the same boring paddle boats they have for decades (probably literally the same boats). Maybe stand up paddleboards wouldn’t work there, but there has been zero innovation there (Why not kayaks? Why not rowboats? Why not at least newer paddleboats?)

GSI runs the Tidal Basin concession.

GSI also was cursed upon Glen Echo Park. As DePillis described:

GSI took over the food services at Glen Echo Park in the early 2000s, but the independent entity that Montgomery County set up to run the former amusement park wasn’t happy with its vendor’s run-of-the-mill offerings. After a decade of work that required the involvement of county councilmembers and the county executive, Glen Echo was finally able to wrench free of the contract, and brought in a vendor that serves a full menu of fresh sandwiches and salads. “We have ongoing needs that are different from a whole bunch of tourists showing up and needing hot dogs,” says Glen Echo Park’s executive director, Katey Boerner.

To be fair, GSI has run Fletcher’s Boathouse since the Fletcher family sold the business several years ago. It hasn’t resulted it terrible offerings there, but as a user of both boathouses, GM can assure you that Jack’s is superior. The boats are better, the employees are nicer, and the whole atmosphere is just more festive (Jack’s lets customers barbecue on the deck. A popular option.)

GSI also runs Thompson’s Boathouse. GM has never used it since it specializes in rowing. But he has heard through the grapevine that GSI is not a great steward of the facility.

The simple fact is that any operator would be better than GSI. And luckily we already have someone who has proven himself superior to GSI.

In the long term, NPS has got to finally get its act together and develop a master plan for boathouses along the Potomac. It will be a plan that leads to two to three university boat houses and the preservation of a public boathouse like Jack’s. But the plan must be drafted and put in to action before any change comes to Jack’s. We’re still far from that.

In the meantime, we need to keep Simkin at Jack’s to keep doing what he’s doing.

While the reprieve stands, relations between Simkin and NPS have continued to erode. Simkin met with NPS officials last week hoping to make progress to finding a win-win solution. The officials told him they were “meeting [him] at [his] request and had nothing more to add or to say.” He has since hired a lawyer.

NPS’s intentions are crystal clear. They want to “regularize the boathouse operations.” That means only one thing: they want Jack’s to be run by GSI. To avoid this we need to keep public pressure up. So sign this petition. And send an email to the director of NPS Jon Jarvis at Jon_Jarvis@nps.gov to let him know that NPS must guarantee the same level of services at Jack’s and that GSI is not an acceptable alternative.

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2 Comments

Filed under Parks and Rec

2 responses to “Save Jack’s Boathouse

  1. adam

    While I certainly like Jack’s boathouse, it’s fairly ridiculous that he’s paying NPS only $356/month in rent for that prime spot. Local residents currently pay $50/month to STORE boats there–150 of them–so users already pay $7,500/month just for the space. And that’s before renting out anything or charging $10 to launch your own boat. Huh? Why are we paying Simkin windfall profits for using public property?

    I love having a public boathouse, but the benefits should flow to users or to the National Park Service–not to Simkin for an outdated sweetheart contract.

    The better approach is to bid it out under a specific request for proposal that requires the leaseholder to continue to provide public access, kayak, canoe, and other rentals, and other current services. It could also specify some measure of affordability. That should be the goal of your public outrage: Make sure the RFP includes the services we want. Make sure they’re readily available at reasonable cost. And make sure that the fees that users pay benefit the local Nation Park Service for local services.

  2. Dizzy

    “It will be a plan that leads to two to three university boat houses and the preservation of a public boathouse like Jack’s.”

    That a fact? Based on the battles already waged and the battles surely-to-come, “two to three university boat houses” does not sound like something that could conceivably come to pass.

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