In the 19th century, the Ariel, Undine, Zephyr and L'Hirondelle rowing clubs on the Middle Branch Basin drew 10,000 spectators to their races. But the sport has dwindled since World War II. Mr. Plank's interest in the Middle Branch area — coupled with casino impact funds, which could be used to improve the water quality — make now a perfect time to revitalize this part of Baltimore's heritage.
It's been a very long time in coming. Various master plans have touted the rowing possibilities in the region, though few improvements have come to fruition.
In his introduction to the 1977 Middle Branch Master Plan, William Donald Schaefer said, "Rarely does a city of Baltimore's age have an opportunity to reclaim such an extensive area for … boating, aquatic study, bicycling and other leisure activities" to complement "the more densely developed Inner Harbor."
The revised 2007 Master Plan recommended "fishable and swimmable levels by 2020, protecting and restoring wildlife habitat," and creating "a comprehensive open space and recreation system that promotes the natural shoreline and water-based activities."
If we return to our historic 19th century roots, rowing can do for Baltimore's ecologically sensitive "Second Harbor" what it has helped many cities and regions do across the country.
In the past 20 years Pittsburgh, Pa.; Camden, N.J.; Northern Virginia; Cleveland, Ohio; Worcester, Mass; Sacramento, Calif.; Sarasota, Fla. and many smaller locations have capitalized on rowing and the water-related recreational activities that follow the sport by building expanded rowing and paddling centers, concessions and enhanced recreational activities around the boathouses.
Oklahoma City, for example, invested millions to transform its waterfront along the Oklahoma River, with rowing a significant component of the revitalization. Now canoeing, kayaking, dragon boating, stand-up paddle boarding as well as land-based recreation, retail and restaurants have joined in to boost the economy of the former Dust Bowl city, which also serves as one of the U.S. Olympic rowing training centers. Chicago is planning four new boathouses along the Chicago River, three already in place, in order to increase river activity, after-school and summer youth programs, accelerate the pace of environmental clean-up and prompt the inevitable economic impact that follows.
Just over the Hanover Street Bridge, the Baltimore Rowing Club is bursting at the seams with hundreds of rowers, canoers, kayakers and paddlers of all ages and abilities stuffing their equipment into three narrow bays and on outdoor racks. Year-round racing, training and recreational offerings include Camp W.A.T.E.R.S. (all day summer camp for inner-city youth), Reach High Baltimore (urban outreach), Juniors racing team (high school youth from metropolitan Baltimore), adult and corporate rowing as well as city-run canoe and kayak opportunities. If a second boathouse were built today, it would immediately fill with just the boats sitting outside and the ones on the waiting list for rack space.
Three popular regional regattas and waterfront festivals draw thousands of people each year from the eastern seaboard to Baltimore's rowing venue. In April, the 12th annual Baltimore Invitational Regatta drew 30 high school teams from Long Island to Virginia, 1,000 athletes and 2,500 spectators to Middle Branch Park for a full day of racing. Rowing is in such demand at the collegiate level that in the last two years alone, Baltimore Rowing Club high school rowers have been recruited by Boston College, Clemson, Cornell, Georgetown, Holy Cross, MIT, the Naval Academy, Syracuse, Tennessee, Trinity, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, Wisconsin and many others.
The explosion of collegiate rowing continues to ripple up and down to middle and high school rowers as well as masters athletes well into their 70s. Quadrupling since 1990, there are 1,500 organizational members nation-wide of USRowing, the governing body which has already signaled a desire to bring major regattas to Baltimore if improvements could be made to Middle Branch.
Rowing is no longer an elite or Ivy League sport. With the right vision, planning, willpower and buy-in from key public and private parties, Baltimore could reinvent itself as the home of the most dynamic regional land and water-based recreational destination in the Mid-Atlantic — all on the back of rowing.