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It’s winter at Jack’s Boathouse. There are no customers stepping gingerly into rocking canoes, no seasonal workers grabbing paddles from the rack, no lingering scent of sunscreen and bug spray. A chain blocks off the parking lot, and the 130-foot main dock is hibernating at its off-season home near the Pentagon.
This would normally be the time for Jack’s owner Paul Simkin to prepare for the spring: buying equipment and hiring employees and booking group excursions on the Potomac River. Instead, he’s in his tiny on-site trailer with his lawyer, his assistant, Washington City Paper’s photographer, and me, huddled around a little table by an electric fireplace, discussing whether the 68-year-old boathouse will ever open again.
It’s not for lack of success: According to Simkin, who took over when founder Jack Baxter’s son Frank died in 2009, Jack’s has gone from about 4,000 customers four years ago to 72,000 in 2012. Nor is it for lack of popular support: All of the neighborhood and city leaders I’ve talked to would love to see the quirky independent boathouse remain. Instead, it’s the result of a sudden decision by Simkin’s landlord, the National Park Service, to bring the boathouse into accordance with its standard practices.
NPS’ motivations are a point of dispute. Ask NPS officers, and they’ll say they have an obligation to federal taxpayers to get the highest possible return—in money and service—from the spaces over which they have jurisdiction. Ask Simkin, and he’ll tell you that NPS appears to have a vendetta against him and a desire to replace Jack’s with the latest in a string of sterile boating operations taken over by NPS’ contractor of choice, Guest Services, Inc.
In December, NPS sent a letter to Simkin informing him that his lease was terminated, then reversed course and said Jack’s could remain in operation, before shifting gears once again on Jan. 18 with a request for qualifications from interested bidders and a stated intention to award a concession by the end of February.
There’s almost certainly a lawsuit ahead. Simkin’s lawyer, Charles Camp, asserted earlier this month that by the terms of a 1985 D.C. Council resolution transferring jurisdiction over the Georgetown waterfront from the District to the federal government, the land had in fact reverted to the city. But the resolution also mandated an exchange of letters between the mayor’s office and NPS to iron out the details of the transfer, and a letter that surfaced last week appears to undermine some of Camp’s claims, though he says it backs him up on other points. The D.C. attorney general’s office, which was looking into the matter, declined to issue a formal opinion on the case, leaving it an open legal question.
Simkin says he won’t bid on the new concession, which he says would be akin to signing “our own death warrant”; instead, Camp plans to file a complaint in U.S. District Court this week, seeking a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and damages. And if NPS does in fact move to grant a concession to a new operator, Camp pledges to sue that operator. He’s confident litigation would drag on for at least a year or two, allowing Jack’s to continue to operate, though Simkin says the uncertainty is already crippling his ability to hire workers and sign up groups for excursions, since people are reluctant to sign on with an operator that might not exist come spring.
But the law is one thing, and what’s best for the waterfront and the city might be another. On the latter point, there’s actually not much debate: Pretty much everyone wants Jack’s to keep operating. And so it’s time for NPS leaders to ask themselves if they really want to fight the wishes of the city and the successful tenure of Jack’s for the sake of procedure.
Whatever the outcome of the Jack’s dispute, the waterfront is in better shape than it was 30 years ago, and much better shape than it would have been had the federal government’s original plan been followed. A flour mill, a Pepco plant, and other industrial operations once lined the Potomac River in Georgetown, along a stretch that planners in the 1950s decided would be perfect for a new freeway. A popular anti-highway backlash nixed most of the proposed Inner Loop Expressway, but the waterfront property was still subject to a requirement that it be used for transportation or parkland. With the District in no position to bankroll a major new park development in the mid-1980s, the Council passed the resolution that eventually gave NPS the missing link in its stretch of parkland along the Potomac.
Now city officials are pleading for some say over the land their predecessors handed over. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who brought the dispute to the attention of the attorney general for a ruling, says he stands strongly behind Jack’s and would bring the land back under D.C.’s control with an act of Council if he had the power, which NPS asserts he does not. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton sent a letter to NPS Director Jon Jarvis last week urging NPS to sit down with Simkin to work out a solution and stating, “The present posture of NPS promises only more controversy, lawsuits, and interruption of service to the community.”
Yet if Simkin and Camp are to be believed, NPS is hell-bent on getting rid of Jack’s. They say NPS concession specialist Steve LeBel has bullied them and changed the terms of their agreements without warning or explanation, though their accounts are difficult to verify because LeBel is not authorized to talk to the press. In their last meeting, in December, Simkin says he asked LeBel, “What do you want me to do?” LeBel’s reply, according to Simkin? “Be gone.”
In August, Simkin was arrested by the United States Park Police for “unauthorized disposal of solid waste.” According to Simkin, a recently fired employee had told the Park Police that Simkin was putting feces from his trailer into dumpsters on the street. Simkin denied the charge but was asked by a detective to turn himself in. He says he was handcuffed, his diabetes medication was taken from him, and he was thrown into a holding cell for six hours before suffering a seizure from low blood sugar. The case was dismissed on Jan. 16 under a nolle diversion after Simkin performed community service, meaning the prosecution requested dismissal and Simkin was cleared of the misdemeanor charge.
Simkin, an affable 53-year-old man with nervous eyes and a scruffy red beard that bring Vincent Van Gogh to mind, believes “without a doubt” that his arrest and rough treatment are connected to his dispute with NPS, which oversees the Park Police. Park Police spokesman Sgt. Paul Brooks says, “I have no knowledge. If the person in question wishes to make a complaint, they need to contact our internal affairs unit.”
Simkin and Camp say NPS’ “intimidation” of them is not unique. They point to two other boathouses now operated by Guest Services, Inc.: the Anacostia Marina, whose owner was also charged with illegal dumping before NPS shut it down, and Fletcher’s Boathouse on the C&O Canal, whose previous operator, they say, was threatened into leaving. NPS spokeswoman Jennifer Mummart denies any relevance of Simkin’s analogies, adding, “Certainly he has an interest in trying to maintain noncompetitive status.”
But NPS concessions haven’t been particularly competitive. Since 1986, GSI—which is planning to bid on the Jack’s concession—has had right of first refusal on most of the region’s federally owned park spaces. Simkin and Camp say LeBel told them twice that GSI had first dibs on the Jack’s concession if it opened up to bidding, though Mummart and GSI spokeswoman Kris Rohr say it does not.
Mummart says NPS won’t simply choose the highest bidder, but will use criteria like the operator’s “experience” and “financial capacity to run a business.” But if the concession will be awarded on the basis of subjective criteria—criteria on which Simkin has already proven himself—it’s unclear why NPS won’t consider the proposal that Norton and Evans and Simkin have all pushed: a simple meeting with city officials and the Jack’s staff to work out a deal.
With his booming business, Simkin can presumably afford to pay more than his current $356 monthly rent. And the American taxpayer NPS claims to be working to protect surely won’t mind if just one Potomac boathouse stays independent and colorful and out of the hands of GSI.
So why is NPS so insistent on moving forward with a new concession that could get tangled up in years of lawsuits? Mummart says NPS is “simply trying to offer a concession contract to provide these services, which is exactly what we do in national parks across the country.” But if GSI has so often gotten right of first refusal, why can’t NPS give the same privilege to a beloved boathouse that’s been in operation for nearly 70 years?
Certainly D.C. residents wouldn’t complain. Every Georgetown resident, waterfront neighbor, and city official I spoke with would like to see Jack’s remain. Reviewers on sites like Yelp rave about their experiences there and give it higher ratings than its more staid GSI-operated competitors. To many of its customers, it’s not just a boathouse, but a neighborhood amenity, with public grills, friendly staff, and a comfortably hippie-ish vibe.
“Everyone is in favor of retaining Jack’s,” says Ann Satterthwaite, who chairs the Friends of Georgetown Waterfront Park. “I think there’s a strong commitment from people in government and the private sector to keep Jack’s.”
Maybe NPS could dodge an onslaught of litigation by coming around to the same perspective.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery