In 1912, Buffalo had 14 rowing clubs, attracting many West Side and South Buffalo mill and factory workers who wanted to blow off some steam after a long day at work, almost the way softball teams do now.
The newest of those 14 clubs, the West Side Rowing Club, which was born that year, still survives more than a century later.
But Buffalo now boasts only two clubs, and fewer people know about the new kid on the block, the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association, which operates largely out of the limelight, along the Buffalo River on Ohio Street.
Not only is the new association part of the renaissance of the Ohio Street corridor, also home to the fairly new Buffalo River Fest Park, but it's also part of the anticipated rebirth of the rowing culture in Western New York.
The association hopes to open its new glass-and-steel 16,000- square-foot boathouse, part of a $2.2 million project, sometime in the next year as it helps rowing regain a foothold in the Buffalo area. Fewer than 500 people in the region now row.
“We want to expand rowing and make it more accessible to city and suburban kids, especially those with any disadvantages,” said Mark B. Kostrzewski, president of the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association. “Our goal over the next 10 years is to have 2,500 adults and youths rowing in Western New York.”
The association now has about 215 youth rowers from Maritime Charter School, Canisius High School, Bishop Timon-St. Jude and Buffalo Seminary, along with about 35 Masters rowers.
Kostrzewski wants to develop five or six satellite rowing locations – on the Buffalo River, the Union Ship Canal and in Niagara County.
“We have about a dozen schools on a waiting list that would like to start a rowing program,” added Kostrzewski, a businessman and former rower at Cornell University.
But the story of the 3-year-old association is more than about rowing. It's also the story of renewed activity on the Buffalo River, on Ohio Street and along the city's waterfront.
“We are the first entity that's bringing large numbers of people back to the Buffalo River,” said Craig Thrasher, the association's vice president of buildings and grounds. “We're putting people back on the river for recreation.”
The river creates plenty of advantages for local rowers in a cold-weather city; the ice clears early in the spring, the locale offers more shelter from heavy winds, and the water tends to be smooth. Rowers from the four schools already have been out on the river for about a month.
“We've managed to plant our flag in the ground on Ohio Street,” Kostrzewski said. “We have hundreds of people rowing there. In the next 12 to 15 months, we're going to have a beautiful new facility that we feel will encourage more development in the Old First Ward and along the waterfront.”
Kostrzewski also emphasized that the association enjoys collaborating with community groups, including the Old First Ward Community Center and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.
Association officials hope to break ground for the new Patrick Paladino Memorial Boathouse between May and August. The organization has raised about $1 million and hopes that by breaking ground this summer, it can raise the rest of the funds in the next 12 to 15 months.
The 10,000-square-foot first floor will have five boat bays, capable of storing about 75 rowing shells. The top floor will house training equipment, offices and ergometer rowing machines.
Thrasher and Kostrzewski pointed out that their organization, at rowbuffalo.com, is an association, not a rowing club. That's a key distinction, because the association doesn't hire the coaches or schedule the regattas.
“The schools will run their own programs, buy their own equipment and become autonomous,” Thrasher said. “The association will be here to foster that growth.”
In its first three years, the association already can boast a few student-athletes who have earned college rowing scholarships from schools with new rowing programs.
As Kostrzewski said, “We're preparing kids for rowing and life, one stroke at a time.”