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Decrepit boathouse given a lifeline

By From the Boston Globe

By Joyce Pellino Crane, Globe Correspondent

LOWELL -- In the waning hours before adjournment last month, state legislators moved to rescue the Bellegarde Boathouse from its questionable future by passing a measure that permanently hands control of the structure on the Merrimack River to the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and provides $1 million for its upkeep.

If Governor Mitt Romney signs the bill into law this week, the move will mean that Lowell High School's rowing team, the Merrimac River Rowing Association, and a number of other groups can continue using the 1982 recreational facility, and the boathouse will get the upgrading it so badly needs.

According to state Representative Thomas Golden Jr., a Lowell Democrat, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which has had control of the boathouse, closed it down this year because it had fallen into disrepair and needed carpentry and plumbing work.

The governor's office referred inquiries to the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, which oversees Conservation and Recreation, but a spokesman for that agency did not respond to phone calls.

After the boathouse was shut down , the parents of Lowell High School students in the rowing program flooded Golden's office with phone calls asking that something be done. The city and UMass-Lowell collaborated on short-term repairs that allowed the boathouse to reopen in the spring and city officials deemed the boathouse structurally sound, Golden said. The university rebuilt two exterior walls, and the city fixed the plumbing.

But the long - term future of the structure was in question. UMass-Lowell officials said they were reluctant to spend significant amounts of money on the boathouse unless they had jurisdiction over it.

``It's been sort of there for a long time and falling into disrepair," UMass-Lowell spokeswoman Renae Lias Claffey said of the boathouse, named for the late Edmund Bellegarde of Lowell. ``At one point we had had some meetings and tried to put some money into funding it. But for us to put capital funds into a building we don't own, a lot of people call that fiscally unwise and perhaps not the best use of educational money."

That's when Golden, and Senator Steven Panagiotakos, also a Democrat from Lowell, set the wheels in motion for a change of custody.

``Obviously, it's a gem and it's been falling into disrepair," said Golden. ``We've been trying to put money into a vehicle that would allow us to either rebuild it or repair it. DCR hasn't had the ability to keep it up to the standards that it should be at."

Both the Senate and House passed the bill unanimously. The final vote was taken just before midnight on July 31.

``We look forward to the university taking an active interest. . . . I'm just hopeful that with that will come a renewed commitment to the UMass-Lowell rowing program," said Joseph Lafreniere, president of the Merrimac River Rowing Association, ``and we hope they will continue the community sculling programs."

Lafreniere is a 1980 UMass-Lowell graduate who captained the men's rowing team. He met his wife, Virginia, who captained the university women's rowing team, while attending school there. Together, they advocate for the 50 or so active association members who pay annual dues to use the boats stored at the boathouse.

Claffey said the university continues to sponsor a team. Other users include a summer camp for at-risk Lowell children, she said.

The boathouse's future will fall under the management of the facilities and athletics departments, said Diana Prideaux-Brune, vice chancellor for facilities. The first step will be to get all the mechanical structures, such as plumbing and ventilation, in tip-top condition. Then university officials will begin planning revenue-generating events, she said.

``For example, there was a sailing program that the city had run, and we would love to revitalize that program and get it back," said Prideaux-Brune. ``The university also offered an adult rowing program in the summer, and we'd love to do that again."

The university's rowing team will get more consideration for upgrades, she said, as will the active and successful high school team.

Golden said the university can use the $1 million appropriation from the Legislature's supplemental budget as a security for borrowing more money or spend it on the building's maintenance.

``The important thing," he said , ``is we're moving forward to make it a first-class boathouse, . . . because if we don't do something, we're going to lose it."