Dave Owen announced Monday in a letter to Durham's Parks & Rec department that he'd be ending his almost two decades of offering "wafting" tours of the Eno River launched through the city's West Point Park on the Eno facilities.
Owen, together with partner Josie McNeil, has been an active voice in the debate over the future of the city-managed park; together, they've been central to the debate over a possible transfer of the park to state parks system as a way of preserving an ecologically-sensitive tract adjacent to the park. Owen has also spoken out at times over the state of the city park's management.
In Owen's letter to the City (which is posted on his program's web site), it's the city's management decisions around the park -- specifically as it relates to the wafting service he's offered, which reportedly drew as many as 2,000 participants a year -- that led to his decision to discontinue the service.
We at BCR attempted to reach Parks & Rec staff late on Tuesday afternoon but were unable to get comment from them in advance of publication.
Owen notes that the removal of his program office from the blacksmithing shop on the site is one factor; more pressing appears to be the City's requirement that he procure liability insurance for participants in the program. The wafting program had been operating under what appears to have been a handshake deal with the City. The Herald-Sun's Ray Gronberg has a very interesting analysis on this issue:
But Owen got a favorable deal from a former parks department official when he started the business in 1990 that allowed him to tag onto the city's insurance. Parker said the arrangement was contingent on wafting customers signing a department-issue registration form -- something Owen said he hasn't used since 1995, with the knowledge and agreement of West Point's manager.
He said it would cost him $2,200 to insure the business for the summer, an amount that would eat into its "meager income" and in this economy couldn't be offset with a ticket price increase.
City officials aren't bending on the point. "Somehow those issues of liability coverage and waivers have to be dealt with," Voorhees said, acknowledging that the 1990 deal Owen got from the department seemed like one of those things where "something gets established and nobody asks" about the details.
Owen also complains in his letter that the City is "mismanaging the use of the old blacksmith shop" where his program was based by making it available to what he terms is a "redundant program" to Schoolhouse of Wonder, a non-profit organization offering environmental education opportunities to youth. (McNeil is a member of Schoolhouse of Wonder's board of directors.)
We at BCR would expect that Owen's argument about Schoolhouse of Wonder may resonate more deeply with the City than the question of liability insurance.
New city manager Tom Bonfield has zeroed in -- apparently as both a budgetary and a philosophical priority -- on a goal of encouraging non-profits and other organizations to play a more active role in city life, versus having the city duplicate services that a non-profit might offer.
In fact, at Monday night's budget priorities workshop, there were just two questions for the tables to debate: what services do you think are the highest priorities for the City to offer, and what functions do you think could best be handled by non-profits or private businesses.
On the flip side, it's tough to see a way around the question of liability insurance that doesn't either offer (a) Owen picking up an insurance policy or (b) getting customers to sign the required forms.
In either event, it's not entirely curtains for Owen in the park; he's promising to offer "a unique land-based program" for experiencing the Eno later this year.