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January 9, 2013

Charting new waters

January 16 could turn out to be an important day in the history of Temple's athletic program.

That's when Philadelphia's Commission on Parks and Recreation will hold a public hearing at Lloyd Hall at 1 Boathouse Row on Temple's proposal, which was submitted in October, to build a new boat house along the banks of the Schuylkill River. After that 6 p.m. hearing and the public comment period concludes, the commission will make a written recommendation to Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke as to whether or not the land should be transferred to Temple.

Even if the Commission on Parks and Recreation opposes the land transfer, City Council ultimately has final say on the decision.

Temple has been a successful part of the collegiate rowing tradition in Philadelphia, from winning the Varsity Eight race 20 times in the Dad Vail Regatta to hosting the annual Murphy's Cup, but the Owls have been without a home for almost five years and are sorely in need of a new boathouse.

The land Temple is attempting to acquire is a half-acre plot on the east side of the Schuylkill -- one that is south of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and north of the East Park Canoe House, which had previously been the home of Temple rowing and crew for nearly 40 years until the building was condemned in 2008 after storms twice caused a retaining wall on the riverbank to collapse and brought about a flood that cost Temple's crew teams $150,000 worth of equipment and one of its tents.

Over the past two years, Temple's men's and women's crew and rowing teams have been operating in and out of tents and trailers and even had to move the trailer a few miles away to the Roxborough section of the city in late October to avoid any potential damage or flooding brought about by Hurricane Sandy.

In other words, it has been a difficult way to run a tradition-rich program.

"When other teams come off the water and it's 20 degrees outside, they have someplace warm to go to," said junior Ali Watkins, a member of the second varsity boat from some of last year's spring racing season and a member of the Frosh Novice Four that made it to the semifinals in the Dad Vail Regatta last year. "When we come off the water, we're huddled around each other in tents and when we leave, our equipment is being stored in tents behind a fence. If anybody got beyond that fence, they'd have access to taking hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment of ours."

Looking at it through that basic lens, Temple simply wants its student athletes to have the resources they deserve.

"This is all about our student-athletes," Ken Lawrence, Temple's senior vice president for government, community and public affairs, said. "We've had students for the past four seasons who have been rowing out of tents. Moving forward, we can make sure our students have a first-class facility that they deserve. We also expect the TU Boathouse will be a source of pride for all of our students and alumni in the Philadelphia area that can look at Boathouse Row and know Temple has a presence."

Temple is proposing the construction of an approximately 23,000-square-foot, two-story facility that would allow both teams to host banquets on the second floor in a 2,700-square-foot all-purpose room. The boathouse would have three boat bays, a community and exercise room, and a rowing tank as well.

"I was talking to my brother about it," Dr. Gavin White, who is in his 33rd season as the head coach of Temple's men's crew program, said. "He was joking around and said, 'You think your kids will get soft? They've been like Washington's soldiers crossing the Delaware - no bathrooms, no roof over their heads.'"

White, a member of Temple's Hall of Fame and one of the most notable coaches in the sport, paused for a moment before choosing his answer.

"Washington won, right?" White said with a laugh. "I think our kids will be all right. They've been tough and have never complained a bit about not having those resources, and it's part of what's made us tough, but they deserve this. It would be glorious. It would be fabulous to have a roof over our heads again.

"I just want to see our kids have what other schools have. It just makes me feel good to give our kids."

The project has the support of City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who represents the site identified for the proposed boat house, as well as the Dad Vail Regatta Organizing Committee. Councilwoman Cindy Bass, chair of the Committee on Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, and the Schuylkill Navy, which encompasses representatives from each of the city's boat houses, are also supporting Temple's desire to build a new boat house.

Temple also enlisted the help of Pennoni Associates, which conducted an environmental impact study that found that, "the proposed conversion of use of this property for the new Temple University Boathouse will have a net positive impact on the environmental quality of the Park," and the study also found the proposed construction would have little to no impact on area traffic along Kelly Drive.

Now Temple is a week away from a critically important step that could move the whole project to completion.

"Having a boathouse would level our playing field in terms of making us more appealing when it comes to recruiting, and it would be a validation of all the hard work of everyone that has been involved with this program," said Watkins, who will attend next Wednesday's hearing along with her teammates. "There are so many seniors who have been told they would see a boathouse. To finally see a ball rolling and that this meeting is actually happening, it's almost unreal to us. The fact that steps are finally being taken, it's almost too good to be true. We want to have a breakthrough."

That breakthrough could finally come next week.

"Temple has a long history in rowing, but it also has a very bright future as well," Lawrence said. "The women's rowing team has doubled over the past three seasons. There's a growing interest at Temple for rowing and our students deserve to have the same facilities that their competitors have."

OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at jgdicarlo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.

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