Choppy Waters

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

The Cowans felt they were being edged out of the picture. With big money flowing in for the boathouse, they say, they started hearing rumblings that someone with Forest Park Forever wanted to see different people running the new building -- concessionaires familiar with how to handle a more upscale facility.

The Cowans' troubles didn't start and end with the boathouse. Since 1999, they'd also held the concession contract for the Steinberg Rink. Their experience with the ice rink affirms Murphy's Law -- in spades.

In their first year, they lost half a winter season's business when the rink's refrigeration motor went kaput. In 2000, the rink was closed all winter because of construction in the area, part of the massive Forest Park refurbishing project.

The Forest Park boathouse
Jennifer Silverberg
The Forest Park boathouse

This year, Steinberg Rink stayed open almost a full season -- until pipes burst at the beginning of March, forcing an early closure.

Bad luck is one thing. But what galled the Cowans was the seeming indifference of city parks officials to their problems. And if, as the city charges, the Cowans abandoned their contract at the ice rink, it likely had more to do with poor communication than with burst pipes and broken motors.

Case in point: the bicycle-path debacle.

Steinberg Rink has never been a big draw in the summer. Previous operators kept the rink open during the hot months for two roller-skating sessions a day. But the Cowans decided to amp up the summer season by adding an outdoor café with wrought-iron tables and chairs and booking bands on weekends. They spent thousands on bicycles and accessories for customers to rent.

The bike venture had barely started when construction crews came along and tore up the bike paths on the east side of the park.

"One day they closed all that off," says Lori. "didn't even tell us they were going to do it -- they just did it!"

Bess says the Cowans should have known better: "They're trying to act like they were oblivious to the fact that there's construction going on in the park or the rink was being renovated.... The Cowans were keenly aware of what type of construction was going on and when it was taking place, and to blame their failure to make Steinberg successful on construction is ludicrous."

The bike paths were torn up on June 24. Four days later, the Cowans were locked out of the Steinberg Rink facility. They had two years left on the contract. Again, miscommunication was to blame.

"My husband and I looked at the situation," recalls Lori. "We were required by lease to open the rink in the summer, so we did. But with the streets blocked off, we were losing money. The question was: Do we continue to lose money? Our idea was to close the outdoor café, the part we added on. We never talked about closing down the roller skating. That would stay, of course."

Although they hadn't floated this idea past park administrators, somehow the officials found out. When Lori arrived at the facility on June 28, a city employee was in the process of changing the locks. Says Lori: "I called Annabeth and asked her what she was doing, and she said: 'Well, you were going to pack up and leave, so we're changing the locks. You're out of there.'"

A few days later, the Cowans got a letter from the city telling them their contract on the ice rink had been terminated.

Fine and dandy, says Lori. She and Ken won't miss the hassles. Besides, they've purchased a microbrewery in Monterrey, California. She only hopes the new boathouse retains some of its original funky character.

"We worked our tails off and created something unique," she says. "Even now, we run into people who say how much they loved it and how they're worried that the atmosphere will be ruined. There's been talk that the new boathouse may not have live bands, and I've seen pictures [of the new facility]," she says, chuckling, "where they have two different entrances -- one for the Laduers and one for the bikers."

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