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Jack’s Boathouse is dead and gone, and its protracted battle with the National Park Service is now water under the Key Bridge. But Freedom of Information Act requests can take longer than a lifetime, and the FOIA I submitted when I was reporting on the Jack’s saga came back to me after the boathouse’s demise. Still, the internal NPS emails I recently received shed a posthumous light on NPS’ motives during its efforts to replace the operator of the popular Georgetown boathouse.
A brief recap of the episode: In December, NPS sent a letter to Jack’s Boathouse operator Paul Simkin informing him that his lease was terminated, then reversed course and said Jack’s could remain in operation, then shifted gears once again in January with a solicitation for a new operator of the boathouse. Simkin took NPS to court, but ultimately the drama ended when a judge dismissed the suit and NPS picked a new operator, B&G Outdoor Recreation, Inc., in March.
Throughout the struggle, Simkin alleged that NPS repeatedly changed its tune and that NPS concessions specialist Steve LeBel treated him rudely and capriciously. Simkin said that in his final meeting with LeBel in December he asked, “What do you want me to do?”—-to which LeBel replied, “Be gone.” NPS maintained that Simkin was not officially on the lease for the boathouse, which had been in operation since 1945, and that it needed to open the space to a competitive bid for a concession.
Internal emails from the National Park Service and the affiliated National Park Foundation (which technically administered the lease for Jack’s) appear to back up Simkin’s claim that NPS was eager for him to be gone from the start, and wanted to replace him as quickly as possible.
As far back as October, LeBel was already looking into evicting Jack’s, and he sent an email to NPF’s director of government relations, Joseph Eaves, pressing him to help locate documentation concerning the Jack’s lease. “As we move forward with the determination of the use of the entire Georgetown Waterfront, we are exploring the use of the subject property by Jack’s Canoes and Kayaks, LLC,” LeBel wrote.
On Dec. 12, six days before Simkin received the order to vacate the space, LeBel wrote to NPF Vice President Susan Newton, “We’re committed to having someone in place the day after Simkin vacates, so every minute is crucial.”
Newton responded the next day, “Our recommendation is to keep it as a simple vacate notice. All who have reviewed the lease (your side, our side) see that it’s clear that we can give 30 days notice. We’d like to keep it at that. Opening up other topics, such as are they actually assigned the lease or whether NPS is going to offer them a chance to be a future concessionaire, serves to give them points on which to continue the dialogue, which is not our goal. We’d like them to vacate, so let’s keep it at that since we have the authority to do so.” (My emphasis.)
That same day, LeBel wrote in an email to three NPS officials, “Our schedule for executing a contract and starting an operator by Feb. 1 is extremely tight. As of last night, we are prepared to release the [request for qualifications] immediately upon notice to Simkin.”
Asked about the rush to get a new operator in place, LeBel says, “We wanted to get the new operator, whoever that may be, installed and ready to provide service before the season began.”
But that doesn’t explain why NPS seemed so determined to get rid of Jack’s. On that question, LeBel says, “The reason is because the previous operator Mr. Simkin’s name was not on the lease. He had no right to conduct services on Park Service property.”
LeBel says he wasn’t any ruder to Simkin than he is to anyone else. “Mr. Simkin’s welcome to his opinion,” LeBel says. “He’s treated no differently from anybody else.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery