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  • Molly Frank, Regatta planner for the Oakmont Yacht Club, founded in 1903.
  • Regatta at Lake Arthur, on the North of Moraine State Park Aug. 5-6, 2006.
  • Lottie McAlice Rowing Regatta at the Three Rivers Rowing Association boathouse in Millvale on Aug. 22, 2006.
  • Beaver Valley Yacht Club Regatta Aug. 18-20, 2006
  • The growth of boating is contributing to the region's economic growth and development.

Three Rivers Regatta, citing a 2002 economic impact study, asserts the annual four-day event that attracts from 200,000 to 400,000 people generates $32 million in spending and related economic benefits to the city, an additional $24 million to Allegheny County, and another $13 million to the rest of the state.

HistoryEdit

The rivers have been treated as a commercial resource. The Port of Pittsburgh is the country's second-largest inland port, shipping and receiving 52 million tons of cargo in 2002 and contributing more than $873 million annually to the regional economy.

A 1996 report done for the Port of Pittsburgh Commission concluded that the region's Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers generate and are responsible for nearly 120,000 jobs and $5.1 billion in wages and spending annually. That's four times as many jobs as the Port of Seattle and two times as many as the Port of Houston, major international gateways for imports and exports. But the report's authors included some 200 miles of rivers in 10 counties in their study, as well as jobs at companies that use the rivers to move goods, such as the 1,700 jobs at U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works at the time.

But the barges and freighters moving all those commercial goods increasingly have had to make room for powerboats, cruiser, kayaks and canoes. Even as the region's population has been shrinking, boat registrations have risen, from 18,518 in 1975 to 26,373 in 2005. In the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, which encompasses Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, registrations totaled 66,873 last year, nearly a fifth of the state's total of 349,644.

While a lack of information makes it difficult to gauge the impact of recreational boating on the region's economy, studies have determined that at the state level, it's sizable. The American Sportsfishing Association had estimated that fishing generates more than $1.34 billion of economic activity and supports nearly 17,000 jobs in the state.

Before the 1980s, river recreation didn't occur because of industries dumping. Toxics are a threat -- if you went into the rivers, you were going to turn orange. The rivers grew cleaner.

Dave Gregory, the general manager of Washington's Landing Marina and the son of the marina's developer and owner, James Gregory, has been involved in one way or another with the business since its 1991 opening. In the early days, smaller to midsize marinas dotted the Allegheny, "with 20 boats here, 30 boats there.

Now, there are lot more docks, many of which are "sold out ... early and often," Mr. Gregory said.

Moreover, he noted that in recent years, "We've seen an explosion" of larger boats. Customers who once piloted 35- or 40-foot boats are now opting for vessels between 65 and 70 feet. "What was a larger boat 15 years ago is now maybe a smaller larger boat. We've seen the envelope pushed on the upper end."

The National Marine Manufacturers Association reports a similar, if less extreme, trend toward upgrading nationwide. "When we look at the trend toward larger, better equipped boats, we're not talking about mega-yachts; rather, we are seeing middle-class Americans buy a 22-foot boat instead of an 18-foot boat," said association President Thom Dammrich.

With a new 20-foot boat running $25,000 or so, boating is not a hobby for the poor. But the National Marine Manufacturers Association says that three-quarters of boats on the water today are owned by individuals or families with a household income under $100,000.

And for every upgrade, there's a used boat that may be placed on the market, making boating even more affordable for newcomers. A glance at the Web site for Anchors Aweigh, a monthly magazine for the local boating community, reveals a five-page listing of used boats at prices as low as $2,000.

For Mr. Gregory, all of that is good news, which may be considered overdue after the series of tropical storms capped by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan, which caused $800,000 in damage to the marina in 2004. Local boaters lost hundreds of vessels that year.

But Mr. Gregory remains enthusiastic. "People who truly enjoy it are extremely passionate about it," he said.

Andy Baechle is one of those passionate people.

You might expect the director of the Allegheny County Parks and Recreation Department to readily drop factoids such as the location of the largest lake in the county (North Park) or that the Youghiogheny is a good site for winter canoeing. But when he talks about boating, he lapses into language that verges on the spiritual.

"Recreation is different things to different people," Mr. Baechle said. "When my world gets tough, I grab my canoe and go boating. The root of 'recreation' means to re-create, and that's what I do. I re-create myself."

Mr. Baechle, 45, has been boating since the late 1970s. His favorite sites for canoeing include the Little Beaver River in Ohio, just south of Stebuenville; Chartiers Creek, a 10-mile waterway; and Cross Creek Lake in Washington County. His favorite canoeing partner is his wife of 20-plus years, Launa Mallett.

"I boat 12 months a year," he said. "It's a life sport. Hopefully, I can do it when I'm 70."

Another gauge of the region's interest in recreational boating is the the annual Pittsburgh Boat Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which typically attracts some 25,000 each year.

Attendance was down at this year's show, but then again, it did coincide with the Super Bowl, when "everybody went to Detroit," said Andy Talento, general manager of the Tri-River Marine Trade Association Inc., the show's sponsor.

But the drop in attendance also illustrates a troubling ripple in the boating scene: Even as some boaters are upgrading, others are putting off purchasing altogether.

Higher energy prices, a dearth of public launch sites and the extension of the no-wake zone further beyond the Point State Park waters have conspired to shoo away some potential buyers, says John Kosmack, the third-generation owner of Route 8 Marine in Glenshaw.

Gasoline used for boats typically costs $1 to $1.50 more per gallon than when used for cars, he said. And a 20-footer, which is small as boats go, may have a 40-gallon tank. So a fill-up these days can easily put a $160 dent in a boater's wallet.

As for public launch sites, the city has only one, at 18th Street on the South Side on the Monongahela. The lack of free ramps effectively leaves boaters who don't rent marina slips with no access to the rivers.

The no-wake zone is the portion of the river where boaters are required to cruise at speeds that will not generate wakes. Formerly its boundaries were the West End Bridge on the Ohio, the Fort Pitt Bridge on the Monongahela, and the Fort Duquesne Bridge on the Allegheny. Now the Allegheny stretch has been extended to the Rachel Carson Bridge (formerly the Ninth Street Bridge), and the additional distance, Mr. Kosmack says, is "a tremendous span of water to run just idle."

Earl Faust of Allegheny Marina Inc., a longtime dealer of pleasure boats and cruisers, echoed Mr. Kosmack's concern about energy prices and launch sites and added his own: The boats he sells require mortgage-scale financing, and the ongoing rise in interest rates has dampened sales.

Fortunately for Shelley Fountain, her business doesn't depend on interest rates. But Ms. Fountain would not have a job at all if not for the growth of boating.

She makes those large tarpaulins that owners use to cover their boats when docked. It is an occupation that she more or less fell into -- working in marina offices, she realized the need, and since she enjoys sewing, set out to fill it.

Because there are only "four or five" canvas makers in the area, Ms. Fountain, who operates her business, Fountain Canvas, out of Allstates Marine in Sewickley, said that she has never had trouble getting customers. In fact, she doesn't even need to advertise.

"From the boating community in Pittsburgh, a lot of us know one another," she said. "I get at least 50 percent of what I do from referrals. I'll do one boat, and from that I get calls from two or three other people."

The work, stitching and shaping large sheets of canvas to fit properly over a bow or a cabin, isn't necessarily easy. Especially in summer.

"There are days when it's 92 degrees out there, and once you start working on a boat, you can't stop until it's done. Then you ask yourself, 'What did I get into this for?' "

But she enjoys the freedom -- "you can pick and choose your jobs" -- and with several canvas makers having retired in recent years, she feels secure in her occupation.

"I'll always be in business," she said. "As the boats age, they have to get new ones."

And when a boat is too big to do alone, she employs a couple of assistants, increasing the job pool just a little more.

(Elwin Green can be reached at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969. )

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