Choppy Waters

Forest Park's new boathouse won't have its old concessionaires and funky flavor

For five years, the Forest Park boathouse was the perfect spot for kicking back on a weekend evening -- sitting at a table sipping a cold beer or glass of wine, watching boaters out on the lake, listening to live music.

It wasn't hoity-toity. It was just a fun little joint with no cover charge, a place where drinks, appetizers and sandwiches were priced for the working stiff's pocketbook. The usual attire was T-shirts, shorts and sandals -- whatever felt comfortable.

Sweat-soaked joggers and Rollerbladers would drop by, take a breather, catch a set and go on their way. Off to one side was a small playground, so parents could bring the kiddies if they wanted. Boat rentals were $20 an hour. A guy could take his girl out on the lake in a gondola with a real gondolier, impress her with his romantic style, maybe steal a kiss.

The Forest Park boathouse
Jennifer Silverberg
The Forest Park boathouse

Good scenes. Good memories. Goodbye.

Not that a boathouse won't be there. It will, after a $2.5 million renovation -- a makeover in progress that includes dredging and expanding the lake and constructing an entirely new facility with a fancy restaurant and catering kitchen.

It's just that the old boathouse and its joie de vivre won't be around. Nor will its former concessionaires, Ken and Lori Cowan. What's in the making looks to be something different altogether, something much more gentrified, with all the whistles and bells a few million can buy.

The boathouse has been there since Jesus was a carpenter. Before the Cowans, the place was run by a man who lived there and supposedly fortified his outpost with mean dogs and a bunch of guns. And if you wanted to rent a boat, good luck. His hours were catch-as-catch-can. In short, the place was rundown and not well trafficked.

Enter Ken Cowan, a boatwright and entrepreneur from Long Beach, California, who loves building gondolas. He came to visit a college friend who had moved to St. Louis for a job. Both of them rowing enthusiasts, they went to the lake in the middle of Forest Park. When Ken saw the lake, situated between the World's Fair Pavilion and the Art Museum, he envisioned gondolas gliding over its placid surface.

Two years later, in the spring of 1997, with a five-year contract in hand, the Cowans took over the boathouse and took out ads seeking gondoliers.

Besides the three gondolas Ken built and brought here, the boathouse rented rowboats, canoes and paddleboats. With colorful lights strung all around and music emanating from the dock, the place looked pretty and inviting .

"We were told when we opened that nobody would come there at night, that we were crazy," says Lori.

Yeah, crazy like foxes.

"They took the boathouse from absolutely nothing to a great success," says Jim Mann, president of Forest Park Forever, a private-sector fundraising organization in partnership with the city to restore and maintain Forest Park. "They made it a destination."

Says Gary Bess, director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry for the city of St. Louis: "The Cowans took a simple boat-rental facility that wasn't attracting many people and did an excellent job making it a place people wanted to go on weekends. There's no argument from us there at all. And I certainly would've been happy if they had retained the right to operate the boathouse, but we'll never know at this point, based on the fact that they've chosen to leave the city."

"Chosen" may be the wrong word. The Cowans left in a huff after their boathouse contract expired June 30. Around the same time, they were also locked out -- literally -- of a still-active contract to run the Steinberg Memorial Ice Rink. They're miffed about their treatment at the hands of the very organizations whose honchos sing their praises -- the parks division and Forest Park Forever.

The bad blood started when the parks division spurned the Cowan's pitch for a long-term lease.

Says Lori: "We had gone to the city for the last few years and told them: 'We've showed you our commitment. We've put our hearts and souls into this enterprise. Now give us your commitment. We don't want a two-year concession contract. It's no longer a hotdog stand. The Muny, the history museum, the golf course all have long-term leases. We want a fifteen- to twenty-year lease.' They wouldn't do it."

Officials not only stiff-armed their request, they told the Cowans that on the expiration of their contract, they would have to submit a bid and compete for the concession like anybody else. This was in stark contrast to the Cowan's contention that Forest Park manager Annabeth Weil had repeatedly assured them they would have the lease on the new boathouse when it opened in the spring of 2003.

But Bess, Weil's boss, says there's no way such a guarantee could be made: "Any concession contract is put out on a bid process. The Cowans definitely knew that they were going to have to compete for the opportunity to continue to run the boathouse, and, based on their past performance, I think they would have had a very good shot at it."

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