City considers Yacht Club future

The Oswego Yacht Club is seen above on Tuesday, July 14, one day after city officials confirmed they place to ask the group to vacate the premises to allow for more development of the International Pier.

OSWEGO — The Port City is considering an end to the Oswego Yacht Club’s occupation of the International Pier as part of a larger effort to improve the waterfront and create a publicly accessible and attractive jetty that complements the improvements at Wright’s Landing Marina and Breitbeck Park.

City officials are discussing terminating the city’s lease agreement with the Oswego Yacht Club (OYC), which if approved would dislodge the long-time tenants from the property later this year as the International Pier is set to undergo a more than $6 million transformation. Yacht club officials say the organization has much to offer to the community at the current location including drawing boaters from throughout the Great Lakes and acting as waterfront ambassadors for the city.

Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow believes there are better uses for the pier.

“When you look at other communities with a pier reaching out into a body of water, the pier is the most valuable and coveted piece of property in the community,” Barlow told The Palladium-Times, adding city officials are seeking to create an economic draw with the yacht club building that helps bring the underutilized waterfront to life.  “Oswego residents know that we have failed to capitalize on our waterfront for years and it’s because the little waterfront the city owns, we don’t take advantage of.”

Barlow said officials would like to create something with the city-owned building that draws more people to the boardwalk. The mayor envisions a bar, restaurant or combination that can serve both boaters and pedestrians along the water, noting the city would likely issue a request for proposals for the structure.

“We have to do what is best for this community and transform our waterfront into an economic asset and that’s what our upcoming projects, not just on the pier but the entire waterfront, will do,” he said. “ As sailors, club members, and folks who love the water, they should understand that, as painful as it may be.”

OYC Commodore Phil McBrearty said club members haven’t been in contact with the city in recent months, but would be more than willing to discuss the issue with city leadership.

McBrearty said the city’s vision and approach to the waterfront right now is “the best it’s been” in decades, but added OYC could play a role in the continued improvement of the waterfront by encouraging use of Lake Ontario as opposed to simply looking at the Great Lake.

“Certainly we’d like to stay in the building,” McBrearty said. “We have a lot to contribute to the waterfront and always have.”

The city Administrative Services Committee is expected in the coming weeks to consider a request from Barlow to terminate the city’s lease agreement with OYC. Barlow’s request appeared on a draft version of the council committee agenda last week, but the measure was ultimately pulled from consideration and delayed with the council slated to return to in-person meetings.

Common Council President Robert Corradino, R-7th Ward, said the lease agreement would be discussed in the near future, noting it was delayed because officials felt, due to the importance of the issue at hand and passion involved, it should be discussed in an open forum at an in-person council meeting. Corradino said the OYC, similar to many other organizations in Oswego, strengthens the fabric of the community and makes it a better place to live.

“That’s what I’m gathering from the people who have called me and explained what the yacht club means to our community,” he said. “I’m hoping that we can work it out so the yacht club will be in our community for many, many years to come.”

Barlow said yacht club members in previous meetings with the city expressed opposition to the plan, noting that initially the city entertained the option of the OYC coexisting with the public pier. However, the mayor said over time it became clear members didn’t feel they could operate without parking and did not appear to be willing to dock their boats in a different area.

“I understand the OYC members are going to be upset,” Barlow said. “They had a really nice building, in a really nice, private location… so I understand why they’re against our changes and don’t want to leave, but our vision goes beyond the yacht club and goes beyond any one sector of the waterfront population.”

McBrearty told The Palladium-Times this week there’s no reason OYC couldn’t coexist with the city’s plans for the waterfront, adding members often serve as a welcoming crew to the larger deepwater vessels that dock on the east side of the International Pier. He noted the city of Oswego is in a unique position to capitalize on the waterfront due to the deepwater port that exists to the east of the pier.

Without the current structure, McBrearty said members would work to continue their mission, which includes providing training to prospective sailors, in addition to hosting annual events and offering decades of experience and nautical knowledge with local boaters and visitors. He said the organization’s overarching goal is to bring more people to boating and the city’s waterfront.

“If we’re not on the pier I think that messaging and the ability to share it will be diminished,” McBrearty said. “We can contribute that to the city because we’re uniquely positioned to do that.”

Corradino said he’s keeping an open mind on the issue and listening to both sides. Noting the two are not exactly the same, he compared it to Catholic church closures and parishioners investment in saving the buildings.

“It was always about the building, about the structure,” he said. “What I’ve gotten out of the issue with the closing of the churches is it’s not about the building. The church is not about the building. It’s about the people who make up that particular religion… a yacht club is not the building. It’s the members who make up the organization. They’re the ones that are the yacht club.”

As a boating club, Corradino said it should be located near the water, but the question is whether the club must occupy the pier in that particular building.

The OYC, which currently has a membership of about 300, is part of the city’s maritime heritage, McBrearty said, and sponsors various regattas and other races that draw visitors to the city.

The OYC was first formed in 1881, McBrearty said, before falling into bankruptcy in 1929 during the Great Depression. Local sailors and boaters resurrected the club in 1983 as a volunteer organization. McBrearty said despite the name, the organization is comprised mostly of sailors and boaters, not yacht owners.

“It’s something that is a product of a gathering of like-minded, dedicated boaters and people who are interested in the waterfront,” he said of OYC. “They’re people who have a special relationship with this waterfront and a profound interest in its well being.”

The yacht club first moved to the International Pier in the early 2000s following the closure of a bar that occupied the structure. When OYC first occupied the International Pier, the Port Authority of Oswego owned the area. The city, however, bought the property in 2012, and took over the lease with the OYC. Over the years the OYC has paid about $600 per month for use of a portion of the building.

Barlow argues the OYC has conveyed the perception the building and pier itself are private, but that is not the case and the city would like to make the pier a pedestrian-only walkway that is welcoming to everyone. He said there are examples of residents and visitors to the pier being led to believe the area is private, noting that is “a large part of the problem,” and the perception the city is seeking to change.

McBrearty said in the past yacht club members may have questioned visitors wandering out to the docks or pier, but noted that behavior is in response to incidents of theft and vandalism in the surrounding area.

The lease termination, if enacted, would be effective Sept. 8, 2020, Barlow said. City officials plan to extend an offer for the OYC to move back into the Roy C. McCrobie Building, where the club existed prior to the current location on the pier.

Demolition work and construction on the International Pier is scheduled to start after Labor Day, with heavy construction occurring throughout 2021.

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