Monongahela River Boat Rental Business Could Spur Economic Growth, Coalition Told

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
21 November 2015
By Joe Napsha,

The Monongahela River's miles-long expanse of flat water, broken into pools created by a series of locks and dams, can be an ideal setting for an outfitter renting canoes and kayaks, but the challenge has been getting entrepreneurs to take the plunge into that business, a group of river town representatives said.

It's not only a matter of encouraging the opening of a canoe and kayak rental business, but the boat rental market would have to expand and an outfitter would have to decide the best site to operate along the river, Cathy McCollom, co-director of the Mon River Valley Coalition, said during a recent meeting in Charleroi to discuss the future of the organization.

Those foundations and agencies funding the coalition efforts since 2011 want to see business growth, McCollom told about a dozen representatives from the coalition river towns in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties and the Morgantown, W.Va., area. The River Town Program, originally launched by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council in 2011, has pumped $2 million into projects in the region, McCollom said.

“At the end of the day, we are doing this to improve business,” McCollom said.

One possibility of raising interest in boat rentals on the river would be to market the river towns in the pools between the locks and dams, said Donna Holdorf, co-director of the coalition and executive director of the National Road Heritage Corridor in Uniontown. The National Road Heritage Corridor assumed leadership of the River Town program in 2014.

A river sojourn is an activity that the river town program should promote, McCollom said.

The locks and dams operated by the Army Corps of Engineers divide the river into separate pools. Boaters have access to a 20-mile pool between Charleroi and Maxwell Dam, located between Brownsville and Fredericktown. Between Maxwell Dam and Grey's Landing Dam near Greensboro, the pool is 18 miles long and an 18-mile pool exists between Grey's Landing Dam and the Point Marion Dam.

Flat water paddling, however, is not an easy sell and West Virginia has had a hard time marketing flat water paddling, said Ella Belling, executive director of the Monongahela River Trails Conservancy of Morgantown, W.Va.

A potential place for a canoe-kayak rental business is the 14-acre Point Marion Community Park, where the Cheat River flows into the Monongahela River, said Point Marion Councilwoman Vicky Evans.

The riverfront park has boat docks and a kayak launch and a shed where boats can be stored, Evans said. Launching a boat at the park gives boaters the opportunity to paddle the Cheat or Monongahela rivers, as well as Dunkard Creek, a few miles downstream on the Monongahela River.

For a canoe rental and kayak rental business to be successful on the river, it needs to providers boaters with launching site put-in point and a take-out site upstream or downstream, where boaters end their trip, Charleroi Borough Manager Donn Henderson said.

Charleroi has a boat ramp by its town's former high school stadium, but work is continuing on improving the site.

California Borough, home to California University of Pennsylvania and thousands of students who could paddle on the river, could be a starting or ending point for a trip on the river, Henderson said. Charleroi is in the same pool on the river as California.

Brownsville has a wharf, but it is underutilized, said Brownsville Mayor Lester J. Ward.

One drawback to paddling canoes and kayaks on the Monongahela River is the amount of motor boat traffic using the river, said Dennis Slagle, president of the Fredericktown Chamber of Commerce.

Canoes and kayaks can be launches from the East Bethlehem Township docks at Fredericktown.

“We're trying to find ways to get people into the river. We are trying to develop the river as an economic engine,” Henderson said.

An effort to get the towns along the river to conduct events on the same weekend has not worked out as hoped for because of the difficulty of coordinating events, McCollom said.

“We're (coalition) not going to be able to do events all the time. The return on investment” is not worth all of the time it takes to work on those activities, he said.

Several representatives said the coalition should have a marketing person to promote the region. Because of the difficulty in obtaining funding, it most likely a part-time position. Henderson suggested that a college graduate students could be hired, while McCollom said it would be good to have one for two years.

If not a graduate student, McCollom said a consulting business within the Mon Valley might serve as the marketing agency.

“Marketing internally and externally should be a priority for the next two years,” McCollom said.

The coalition could have more communities to publicize in a marketing initiative because more towns want to be involved in the organization, said Holdorf, who declined to identify those towns.

“The river is the thing that holds us together. We've haven't begun to tap into that. It is a great link to pull us together,” said Norma Ryan, a member of the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp. and a former Brownsville mayor.