Choppy Waters

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

Aug 28, 2002 at 4:00 am
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.

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."

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.

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."