The Battle for Jack’s Boathouse Rocks the Riverfront
The dispute intensifies as the Park Service names a new tenant for the popular DC boat rental spot.
Whether you call it the battle of the boathouse or a tempest on the tide, the controversy over Jack’s Boathouse continues to grow in intensity, and no immediate resolution is at hand. The owner of Jack’s, Paul Simkin, says a judge issued a restraining order against the National Park Service, which he thought meant the NPS could not take further action without a resolution of their dispute. The NPS, however, has announced a new occupant for the facility, B&G Outdoor Recreation of Boston. Simkin says he has a lease and the business is “not going anywhere. We are not moving one boat,” and that Jack’s will open as planned on April 15, weather permitting.
The dispute between Jack’s and the Park Service began in late December, when Simkin received what he called an eviction letter, effective at the end of January. He was surprised, he says, because up until then lease renewal negotiations were going well for the popular boat rental operation to remain at its waterside home on the banks of the Potomac in Georgetown. It opened in 1945. Simkin took over after the death of his friend and business partner, Frank Baxter, who was the son of the namesake Jack. Simkin says that in the past four years the business has grown substantially, from 3,500 seasonal customers to 72,000.
While Simkin says his relationship generally with the NPS has been good, it’s also clear there’s no love lost between him and Steve LeBel, who is an assistant to the regional director of the NPS. He recalled a conversation with LeBel from January 26. “I said, ‘What do you want us to do?’ and he said, ‘Leave.’ It was pretty clear they didn’t want us there anymore.” Simkin says he felt LaBel had been an opponent of Jack’s for some time. “I believe there’s an agenda, and I can’t imagine what it is, but it’s not only us.” Simkin says that last week a federal judge told both sides he wanted them to do nothing until April 1, but that two days later “LeBel shows up at the boathouse with a police captain to hand me an eviction notice.” We placed a call to LeBel, but have not yet heard back.Simkin’s lawyer, Charles Camp, filed a motion for contempt with the court after his client’s encounter with LeBel. His filing said the NPS was in violation of the compliance agreement with the court, and that LeBel’s action caused “intimidation” and “entirely unnecessary distress” to his client. He also said that the NPS subsequent press release announcing the new tenant “is an obvious effort to inflict as much damage as possible to Jack’s LLC.” The NPS, on its own behalf, told Washingtonian there is no restraining order. Their lawyers Tuesday filed a response to the contempt memorandum saying it was “wholly without merit.” Camp told The Washingtonian Tuesday that the motion for contempt against NPS was denied by the judge.*
“I would love to sit down with [National Park Service director] Jon Jarvis,” Simkin says. In the meantime, he has hired a lawyer, Charles Camp—who filed suit against the NPS in federal court—and reached out to DC City Council member Jack Evans, whose district includes Georgetown. “I trust Jack and the mayor far more than I trust any of the other people I’ve been negotiating with,” Simkin says. He adds that it’s his understanding the NPS does not have rights to Jack’s property. “The riverfront reverted back to the city some time ago,” he says. “Therefore they don’t have the right to dictate what happens there.” Simkin describes his lease with the NPS as “open-ended,” and says that since “we’ve been paying for years and years, we in fact still have a lease.”
Caught in the middle is Michael Aghajanian, president of B&G Outdoor Recreation, who says he did not know of the controversy until late in the process of applying for the contract. We spoke with him Monday afternoon, shortly after talking with Simkin. Aghajanian is happy about winning the contract but wary of the brouhaha. “It’s actually quite simple,” he says of his attitude. “We’re very friendly. We have no ill will toward Mr. Simkin. We love the idea of Jack’s Boathouse. We have two boathouses that have a similar feel. This really has to do with Simkin and the National Park Service. We will not interfere until they work out their differences.”
We asked Aghajanian if he could envision a scenario in which B&G and Jack’s might be able to join together in some way. While he is coming to Washington this week he says it is too early to make that call. “There will be some point where I will reach out to Paul, and I look forward to reaching out to him, for some creative solution,” he told us. We took that comment back to Simkin, who said, “I would love to meet with him and chat with him. We [Jack’s Boathouse] don’t have any intention of going anywhere, but I would love a cup of coffee with someone who shares a love of the water.”
In our initial conversation on Monday, Simkin was adamant that he physically would not move from Jack’s Boathouse. “I am prepared to spend every last penny I have set aside for retirement to fight this,” he says. “We are not going anywhere. We are not moving a boat. I’m there all day. They will find me there, renting boats to customers.” What if federal marshals were to come during the night and clear it out? “If they did that, it would mean someone is going to jail, and it’s not me.”
*This post has been updated from a previous version.