'Jewel of the Merrimack'

10/23/2009
By From the Lowell Sun

By Dennis Shaughnessey

LOWELL -- The sun glistened off the water and cascaded across the autumn leaves on the other side of the river.

Rowers from Lowell High School's crew team glided silently over the Merrimack River heading north, under the Rourke Bridge and out of sight, as a crowd gathered on the spacious back deck of the newly refurbished UMass Lowell Boathouse on Pawtucket Boulevard.  
 
The structure, also known as the Bellegarde Boathouse, fell into disrepair after the spring floods of 2006 and 2007. The building was condemned, and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation ordered it to remain closed.

Parents were upset that the future of the LHS crew team was in jeopardy.

"The needs of the boathouse far exceeded (DCR's) means to take care of it," said state Sen. Steve Panagiotakos, who, along with state Rep. Thomas Golden and the rest of the city's Statehouse delegation, secured the transfer of the boathouse to the university and $1 million for repairs.

"We were able to get it open for that season, but we wanted to do something for the long term," Panagiotakos added. "Because we were able to get it to the university, we now have local control."

Work began 18 months ago. New offices, conference rooms, storage rooms, locker rooms, restrooms and a cavernous bay area are being shared by the university, the high school, the Merrimack River Rowing Association and the Lowell National Historical Park.

"Everybody was using it, and nobody was accepting any responsibility of funding it, and it was left up to the university in many cases," UMass Lowell Athletic Director Dana Skinner said. "Now it's a partnership. There are four entities with a stake in it. It's a facility that everyone can take pride in."

An old storage area at the eastern end of the building has been converted to accommodate the historical park's River as a Classroom program, in which students in grades 5-8 from local schools can participate in environmental education programs, such as water-quality testing and other lab activities.

Plans call for the construction of a new dock system and, at some point, a new boat.

"We've applied for a number of grants and are hoping to attract schools from down the river in Dracut, Methuen, Tewksbury and Andover," said Pat Jones, the program's director. "We'd love to get young people to be more environmentally aware."

Merrimack River Rowing Association President Jay Feenan, whose club recently held the 29th annual Textile River Regatta, said the renovation has resulted in a 50 percent growth in membership.

"We were at the lowest we've been since 1988 in terms of numbers, because the boathouse was technically closed for two years," Feenan said. "This will provide more opportunity for anybody to join and learn how to row.

"I'm very happy to have witnessed this transformation," he added, "and I'm excited about the future of our club."

UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan called the boathouse the "jewel of the Merrimack River."

"It's a community asset with enormous potential," Meehan said. "But it's going to require innovative and strategic thinking to make it sustainable. All the partners have to come to the table."

Meehan said the partnership is looking for as much funding as it can get, whether that comes by way of user fees or renting out the facility for various functions.

"That shouldn't be too hard to do," Meehan said. "This is such a beautiful setting."