Pittsburgh-Area Groups Finalize Merger, Preserve River-Focused Programs

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review 
22 January 2016
By Natasha Lindstrom

The 90-foot floating science lab known for using Pittsburgh's rivers as its teaching platform will be back in action this fall, thanks to a nonprofit merger 18 months in the making.

After nearly folding in June 2014, the North Side-based nonprofit RiverQuest will become part of Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp., a Homestead-based nonprofit that aims to preserve Western Pennsylvania's natural, historical and recreational resources. The two boards on Friday announced the final approval of the business plan detailing the merger, which officials say will preserve RiverQuest's educational programs while expanding the reach and scope of Rivers of Steel through paid tours.

The two entities join an increasing number of nonprofits contemplating mergers and other forms of strategic partnerships. In 2015, twice as many nonprofits — or about a dozen a month — approached The Forbes Funds, a nonprofit consulting arm of The Pittsburgh Foundation, with interest in exploring mergers than in 2014.

Though RiverQuest as an entity will be dissolved, the merger will further its two-decade “mission of teaching the importance of our rivers and the unique ecology and environment of our waterways,” said RiverQuest President Jim Roddey. Since its inception in 1995, RiverQuest has hosted field trips for more than 100,000 children from 256 schools in 13 counties. Lessons ranged from collecting water and mud samples and analyzing the contents under microscopes to learning about water conservation and protection amid the natural gas drilling boom.

RiverQuest's financial woes coincided with school districts' tightening budgets. It finished the fiscal year ending June 2014 with a $220,000 deficit — despite slashing expenses from $2.1 million in 2013 to $1.28 million, tax records show.

Rivers of Steel spends $1.26 million annually and finished the year ending December 2013 with a $465,000 surplus and $5.1 million in net assets.

The state must approve the legality of the Rivers of Steel merger, which involves usurping all of RiverQuest's assets — namely, its boat last valued at about $2.5 million. RiverQuest will go out of business debt-free, Roddey said. Its 12 full-time employees will receive severance packages and can apply for jobs at Rivers of Steel.

The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments and an anonymous foundation put $30,000 toward the business plan, and Rivers of Steel is seeking other funding to ease the transition. Officials will pay close attention to the financial state of the merged organization to ensure the move doesn't “ultimately end up bringing down two operations,” said August Carlino, president and CEO of Rivers of Steel.

“The transition is going to need a considerable amount of money and support for us to pull this thing off,” Carlino said. “We know, and the foundations know, that we've got to be very aggressive in how we use this boat, not only for educational programs that we want to start back up again but for other uses. We've got a lot of work to do.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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