New Boathouse operator plans June reopening

By Brent Davis

It’s not much to look at right now — an empty kitchen, scuffed wooden floors, a lonely upright piano pushed up against a wall.

But by early summer, Bill MacTavish and Mark Forwell have something quite different in mind for the Boathouse in Victoria Park.

A live music stage boasting a diverse lineup. A restaurant menu showcasing local produce and craft beer. Capacity for about 120 people inside, with that many again on the patio that fronts onto the park’s lake.

“Everything that we do is going to be as local as possible,” said MacTavish. “It’s going to be our focus.”

MacTavish, owner of Imbibe, and Forwell, his chief investor, are the new operators of the city-owned venue.

After a months-long bidding process, Kitchener councillors formally approved the move on Monday.

Reopening the Boathouse — which has been shuttered since September when the city terminated an agreement with the former operator — won’t come cheap.

The city will spend about $410,000 in renovations including heating, ventilation and air conditioning work and accessibility requirements. MacTavish and Forwell will chip in about $168,000 for additional renovations and startup costs.

They hope to have the venue open for business in mid to late June. “It’s aggressive, which means we have to start right now,” MacTavish said.

The building was originally constructed to store canoes and provide shelter for changing skates. It’s evolved to hold a tea house, a pub and a bar with live music. The last major renovation took place in 1967 following a roof fire.

For its latest role, walls will be taken out to open up the interior. With a new public washroom under construction nearby in the park, exterior access to the Boathouse washrooms will be bricked over. The Boathouse washrooms will be improved, and the entire facility will be accessible.

A new bar will be installed, in the part of the building that housed the skate-changing area years ago. An old sign, proclaiming that “Profane language will not be tolerated,” still hangs on the wall.

“We definitely want it to be a cosy atmosphere,” MacTavish said.

A new concession window will be installed, from which ice cream and takeout picnic baskets will be served to park patrons.

They hope to retain the Boathouse name, but they’re still looking into the legalities.

MacTavish said he will pay musicians who perform there. During peak times, he could have as many as 30 to 35 full and part-time employees on staff.

The 10-year lease on the 3,000-square foot building calls for rent of $7 per square foot in the first year, rising to $10 per square foot for the duration of the lease.

“They need a 10-year time frame to recoup their investment,” said Rod Regier, the city’s executive director of economic development. “We need the 10 years to recoup our investment.”

The bidding process saw six initial bids whittled down to a shortlist of three last year. By November, two of the remaining bidders had dropped out, leaving only the bid from Imbibe for the city to consider.

Brothers Curt and Cory Crossman, founders of the KOI Music Festival, had also been involved in the Imbibe bid in the latter part of the process. But on Monday, MacTavish said they’d had to withdraw for “a bunch of reasons.”

“For them to have a stake in ownership didn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said.

MacTavish said he and Forwell still hope to draw on their music expertise as the project moves forward.

Two councillors, Frank Etherington and Paul Singh, voted against the proposal.

Concerns were raised about the project’s cost.

“I don’t think we’re getting the return that we should be based on these capital improvements,” Singh said.

Etherington said the city has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on exterior landscaping and work on the Boathouse patio.

“To me, this Cadillac Boathouse is way too rich.”

The exterior work totals about $350,000.

Etherington also it is “very unhealthy” that the bidding process was left with only a single contender.

Other councillors agreed they weren’t thrilled with the process, but said it was time to move forward.

“I think we can all agree we want good value for the money,” said Coun. Dan Glenn-Graham. “The point here is that this is an investment.”

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