In the Same Boat Together
Riverfront Club’s Mission Blends Fitness, Teamwork, Access to a ‘Jewel’
Jonathon Moss (left) and Jim Sotiropoulos, founder and director, respectively, of the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club.
Jonathon Moss says he found the item on eBay.
It’s a framed copy of an engraving and short story in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper that chronicles the International Regatta, which took place on a stretch of the Connecticut River in Springfield on Sept. 11, 1867 — and, more specifically, the marquee event that day, a race between a crew from Newburg, N.Y. and another from St. John, New Brunswick, Canada.
Moss, the president and co-founder of the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club (PVRC), says he can’t tell from this artwork where, exactly, on the river the action is taking place — although he suspects it was at or near the site of the current Riverfront Park near the Memorial Bridge. But he can easily discern that this was, in fact, an event.
“There were 10,000 people on hand for this,” he said, citing the account of the regatta as his source for that number. “At the time, the population of Springfield was 15,000 to 20,000 — so the equivalent of half the city showed up on the riverbanks to watch the event. You can see the sundresses and the pomp and the circumstance surrounding this gathering; this was immediately after the Civil War, and folks were looking for a competitive outlet. This was something to celebrate as the country healed.”
Moss, a rower who competed at Wesleyan University, has no delusions about recreating what is depicted in that engraving in 2014, or even 2034. But making history repeat itself isn’t exactly what the PVRC is all about.
Instead, it’s about recapturing some of the river’s great history in rowing — and there is, as that engraving shows, much more of it than most would think — while also reconnecting area residents with a waterway that most know only from driving over it. And it’s also about introducing people of all ages to the sport of rowing and promoting fitness and well-being.
That’s a rather broad mission, he acknowledged, adding quickly that the club is growing into it, and fairly quickly. And it is doing so by focusing on five words that sum up what this organization is all about: activity, diversity, access, health, and team.
These have been the focal points since the PVRC was created in 2007 and operated programs and competitions at the Pioneer Valley Yacht Club (often taking participants from Springfield by taxi to competitions there). And things have only gained speed since 2012, when the club took up residence in what’s known as North Riverfront Park in Springfield, in the shadow of the North End Bridge, and, more specifically, in the 113-year-old facility (long owned by the city of Springfield) known originally as the Rockrimmon Boathouse that was most recently home to Bassett Boat’s showroom.
That framed engraving now hangs in the PVRC’s conference room in the boathouse, one of many rooms in an ongoing state of transformation that will give a nod to the past, but with some 21st-century amenities (more on that later).
And while the restoration and reconstruction work continues, so too does the club’s efforts to introduce people to the river while also stressing the importance of everything from fitness to teamwork.
It does so through a variety of programs and competitions staged throughout the year, including rowing classes for people of all ages, indoor community fitness, youth fall and spring racing teams, the annual Rockrimmon Regatta staged each fall, dragon-boat racing (20-person teams), running and bicycling programs that make use of the bike trail along the river, kayak rentals, and, perhaps most notably, group team building.
Elaborating on that last bullet point, both Moss and Jim Sotiropoulos, PRVC’s executive director, said that perhaps the club’s greatest success comes in putting young people from different communities — and different backgrounds — together in the same boat, where they can row, compete, and grow together.
A big part of the PVRC’s broad mission is to introduce — or reintroduce — area residents to the Connecticut River.
(Photo by Jonathan Moss)
“It builds a sense of community, and you can see it in our high-school program,” said Sotiropoulos, referencing an initiative involving a number of area schools. “We have kids coming from the inner city of Springfield, as well as the suburbs — Longmeadow, West Springfield, and Somers. These kids get in a boat together, and while the economic divide between them is enormous, they become best friends; they just get in the boat together and want to go fast.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the PVRC and what could be called current events. This is an ongoing story with no finish line — at least in a figurative sense — because the hope is that this work will continue with the next several generations of area residents.
Past Is Prologue
It’s called the ‘great room.’
When asked why, Sotiropoulos, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, said “because everyone who goes in it says, ‘this is great.’”
Actually, no one really knows why it’s called that, said Moss, adding quickly that this large room with a vaulted ceiling on the second floor of the boathouse was once very likely the focal point of fellowship at the facility.
At the moment, it is in the midst of the slow-moving process of deconstruction and then restoration, led in large part by students at Springfield’s Putnam High School. It is currently a museum of sorts for rowing machines. Indeed, there’s a collection of them, representing perhaps each of the past five or six decades of products, as well as a few (donated by Smith College) that are more than a century old.
What will become of the room for the long term is not yet known, said Moss, adding that a more pressing matter is renovating the first-floor space to accommodate showers and lockers, a repeated request (if not demand) from the growing numbers of people enjoying frequent workouts at the facility. And then, there’s that ongoing mission and those five words that define it.
But before telling that story, Moss wanted to first go back in time — to when Springfield could truly be called a mecca for rowing — because relating that history goes a long way toward explaining the PVRC’s reason for being.
“Springfield, at the crossroads of New England and with a beautiful riverfront, featured prominently in rowing from very early on,” he said, noting that there are accounts of regattas going back to the 1850s. Crews from Ivy League powerhouses Harvard and Yale raced on the Connecticut River in Springfield because they considered it an attractive neutral site, he went on, even though the work to transport boats and people here from Cambridge and New Haven was rather involved back then.
Rowing was, by most accounts, the first intercollegiate sport, said Moss, and a number of colleges and universities competed on the Connecticut River and in Springfield. By the end of the 1800s, many area public high schools were involved as well.
“And that was extraordinarily unusual,” he told BusinessWest, “because it was only 50 years earlier that it was introduced at all, and it was completely an Ivy League, gentleman’s sport. For there to be public high-school rowing was very unusual, and it was during those Industrial Revolution years that it became very prominent.”
The 20th century would be marked by a number of highs and lows when it came to rowing on the river, said Moss. One of the highs was a huge regatta that accompanied the opening of what was known then as the Hampden County Memorial Bridge in 1922, he noted, adding that the lows were precipitated by world wars, economic downturns (rowing programs are capital-intensive propositions), and, most recently, the dramatic decline in the river’s cleanliness in the ’60s and ’70s.
“People referred to it as America’s most beautifully landscaped sewage system, or something like that,” said Sotiropoulos, who relayed an anecdote about a traveling team beating a unit from Technical High School in the early ’70s, but foregoing the long-standing tradition of throwing the coxswain into the river after a race amid fears for his health.
“They waited until they got back home and then threw him in a nearby lake; they didn’t dare throw him in the Connecticut River,” he went on, adding that, by the mid-’70s, competitive rowing was all but dead on the river, even as work funded by the Clean Water Act began the process of reversing the river’s fortunes.
Fast-forwarding a few decades, Moss said the Greater Springfield YMCA, at the urging of some area businesspeople, introduced a rowing program, which he eventually joined as a volunteer at the start of this century.
“They were teaching middle-aged adults how to paddle and recreate on the river,” he recalled. “I said, ‘this is great, but there’s more to this.’”
The so-called ‘great room’ at the boathouse at North Riverfront Park is currently a museum of sorts for rowing machines, but PVRC officials envision a grander future.
Elaborating, he said there were team aspects of rowing that were missing from the equation that he wanted to add. Shortly thereafter, though, the Y experienced both funding challenges and a leadership change, and the rowing program was cast adrift.
It was then that Moss and several supporters launched the PVPC, a nonprofit agency that eventually bought some larger boats and incorporated a youth program, as well as an initiative for teen mothers working to get their GEDs, and staged programs and competitions in Longmeadow.
The Current Is Strong
Soon, it was decided that, instead of bringing program participants to the yacht club, the more prudent course would be to bring the program to Springfield, said Moss, adding that the PVRC’s fortunes changed considerably when Springfield officials issued a request for proposals for the old boathouse property.
“Their thinking at the time was, ‘we don’t have great access to the river, and we don’t have great recreational activities on the river in Springfield — let’s do something more than allow someone to have a retail establishment here,’” he went on. “The program that we were running — and planned to run — met their needs.”
The club moved into its new home in 2012, said Moss, and soon became one of many organizations, with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission taking the lead, to collaborate on an application for a two-year, $2 million Community Transformation Grant (CTG) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With its share of that award — roughly $350,000 — as well as donations from several area businesses and foundations and revenue in the form of membership fees, the PVRC has been able to take large strides to renovate and repurpose the boathouse and move aggressively to meet its core mission.
“We want to help people make positive lifestyle choices,” said Moss. “This includes exercise, the bike path, experiencing and exploring the river, training indoors in the winter, things like that.”
Going back to those five mission-defining words — activity, diversity, access, health, and team — Moss and Sotiropoulos said a number of programs have been created to address one or, as is usually the case, several of them.
For example, the Healthy Prescription Program is described as a community outreach undertaken in conjunction with the nearby Brightwood Health Clinic, part of Baystate Health System. When a physician prescribes exercise for a patient, that prescription can be filled at the club, and without co-pays, said Sotiropoulos.
“It’s a very unique endeavor that we fund ourselves, and it’s one of the programs I’m most hopeful for, he said, adding that this is an effort born from the CTG grant.
Another initiative with great promise is the Ready, Set, Row program, which takes some of the club’s many rowing machines and deploys them to area middle schools for use in curricula that promote team building and mindfulness.
“What we’ve seen from some of the surveys that we do before and after the program is that it has a positive impact on kids, and teachers can see it,” he noted. “The kids are getting along better amongst themselves, and the teacher-student dynamic is also improved. But we would like to see this expanded to where it’s not done in a vacuum, and we’re able to do this throughout the year and not in a school for a short period of time.”
Moss agreed, and noted that rowing is a sport with benefits not readily apparent to many people. It is a non-contact activity, he said, and one that people can start when they’re young and continue with for a lifetime. Meanwhile, it’s an activity where people are responsible for their own success.
And in the larger boats, as Moss and Sotiropoulos mentioned, rowing has great potential to build responsibility, camaraderie, and teamwork, while also bridging cultural divides.
“They all started out not knowing anything about rowing,” said Moss, “so it’s a very level playing field in there.”
Wave of the Future
Moving forward, there are a number of challenges facing the PVRC, said Sotiropoulos, starting with the still-lingering perception of the Connecticut as a polluted river not fit for water sports such as rowing. That’s if people have opinions on the river at all.
“That’s one of our barriers to reaching people — there’s the belief that the river still is dirty. Because of the Clean Water Act and people changing their lifestyles, the river has become significantly cleaner, and I don’t believe people fully realize that yet,” he said. “And people don’t have the same association with the river they did years ago; if you look at the way Springfield is built, it’s all turned from the river, and I-91 cut off everyone from the river. So part of our mission is to not only promote healthy lifestyles, but also to reintroduce people to the river and let them know it’s a viable resource and that they should be enjoying it — it’s a jewel.
“We’re in the North End in Springfield; we’re in the middle of a city,” he went on. “And I will guarantee you a bald eagle sighting if you spend more than a couple of days on the river in the spring, summer, or fall. If you run north of here [the boathouse], you won’t know you’re in the North End of Springfield, and people are taken aback by that; it gives you a different perspective on the city. But you need to get people out there.”
The boathouse is another challenge, said Sotiropoulos, adding that the facility is old and has undergone a significant amount of work over the years. The deconstruction process has revealed a lot about the structure’s past — including the last vestiges of a wrap-around porch on the second floor — but also some tests that lie ahead. The first-floor renovations top on the priority list, with the great-room renovations to follow.
And funding will certainly be an issue moving forward, he went on, adding that the grant funding will run out next year, and the club will become more reliant on revenues from memberships and gifts from area businesses and foundations.
Thus, one of the club’s ongoing priorities is to tell its story, said Moss, adding that awareness of the club’s multi-faceted mission will help generate support from both public and private sources.
Meanwhile, the organization must be focused on smart, controlled growth, said Sotiropoulos, adding that the Community Transformation Grant certainly accelerated the club’s pace of growth, and the challenge is to manage this opportunity effectively.
“We want to make sure our business is growing at a reasonable rate,” he explained. “Sure, we want the river flooded with canoers, kayakers, rowers, and stand-up paddleboaders, but if 1,000 people show up at the door, we want to be prepared for that. We don’t want to be that organization that grew too fast, with people saying, ‘that could have been a great idea.”
Paddle to the Metal
Moss told BusinessWest that he can’t recall exactly what he paid for the engraving that captured the International Regatta, but believes it wasn’t more than $50.
The item needs a little work and maybe a better frame, and it will likely get both, he went on, adding quickly that, while he and all those associated with the PVRC want to recognize — and honor — this city’s glorious past when it comes to rowing, it is far more focused on the present and future.
In time, he said, the historic boathouse will feature photos from three centuries, and probably more from the 21st, because, while this organization has a number of missions, at the top of that list is a commitment to see that there is a lot more history written at — and on — the Connecticut River.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org