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Staying afloatPride of the Susquehanna overcomes adversity

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The Pride of the Susquehanna riverboat sits on Harrisburg’s City Island as workers complete its yearly maintenance. Photo/Amy Spangler
The Pride of the Susquehanna riverboat sits on Harrisburg’s City Island as workers complete its yearly maintenance. Photo/Amy Spangler

The Pride of the Susquehanna riverboat was rolling along quite nicely until last year’s floods, which swept a cozy financial cushion out to sea and took along with it a few $40,000 docks. But diversification and improvisation saved the day.

The Harrisburg Area Riverboat Society was formed in the 1980s as a 501(c)3 community service organization to promote tourism and economic development. The board of trustees, which comprises volunteer business leaders, decided to add an educational component to increase public knowledge of the history and ecology of the Susquehanna River and its environs.

Balancing that trifecta of tourism promotion, economic development and public education was an ambitious goal, but one the enthusiastic volunteers felt could be achieved. Eventually group members reached a consensus: They would solicit funds to build an authentic stern paddlewheel riverboat to carry passengers across the scenic Susquehanna. Donations flowed into the project. In 1988, The Pride of the Susquehanna was launched. Since then, more than 500,000 passengers have stepped aboard, and the number increases every year, thanks to ever-evolving marketing efforts, officials said.

During the past 23 years, the Pride has remained afloat financially. However, as with most nonprofit organizations today, the Harrisburg Area Riverboat Society has struggled to maintain a bare-bones budget to sustain operations, employing only one full-time staff member — business manager Andrew Ponti — and a seasonal staff of about 30.

“We hire people during the summer for necessary upkeep like repainting, hull repair work, sanding and painting of the paddle wheels, and other odds and ends,” Ponti said.

The society recently hired a part-time grant writer who works on a commission basis, but so far community grants have been negligible. Instead, the society has been pursuing educational grants, which tend to be more lucrative, for The Susquehanna River School, which started four years ago and operates aboard the Pride.

“Grants have indeed helped us, and the school has a very bright future,” said William Cornell, who has been on the board of trustees since 1990 and is founder and director of the river school.

Described as “the only floating classroom educational program on the Susquehanna,” the school holds classes every Wednesday from June to August for about 40 children a week. Due to the success of the Susquehanna River School, the society is embarking upon a revitalization project. Plans are afoot to turn the dormant John Harris trading post, located about 50 yards north of the City Island dock, into a one-room schoolhouse.

“In proximity to that, we hope to build an educational park, complete with historical markers and walkways and pathways to stop, read and learn about the history and natural wonders of the river. It brings a whole new generation of people who will come for reasons other than a boat ride,” Cornell said.

To finance the park project, the society is looking for sponsors and pursuing grants. It also will reach out to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, Ponti said.

To combat the effects of the struggling economy, in 2010 seasonal operations were expanded from April through mid-November. In addition, the board of trustees decided to expand its usual cruise offerings.

“We branched out beyond things like murder mysteries, weddings and parties and the typical 45-minute sightseeing cruise,” Ponti said. “As time went on and things got more expensive, we wanted to reach out to include a larger demographic.”

Wine and cheese night was welcomed aboard, along with hard shell crab night, Arooga’s wing night, blues cruises, jazz cruises and moonlight cruises starting at midnight and offering food and adult beverages. A pirate’s cruise was added to attract families and is extremely popular.

“When September’s flood hit, it was bad,” Ponti said. “It wasn’t just the fact that we canceled sold-out dinner cruises, but we had thousands of dollars we had to refund to people. We were banking on all that money coming in. What saved us were the new ventures we had scheduled throughout the year that we never had before. We had a small cushion. It was really close.”

Despite the struggling economy, advertising revenue remains strong. In addition to pursuing standard advertising, which includes table-top ads, corporate cruise sponsorships and banners, the organization is open to outside-the-box partnerships, like product trades in return for advertising.

“It’s low cost for both parties, and although it’s not a moneymaking venture per se, it has high promotion value on both ends,” Ponti said. “People enjoy the boat and tell others.”

Arooga’s is one of the local businesses that donates 100 percent of its product in exchange for the promotional opportunity.

“We are able to mix and mingle throughout the season and give patrons coupons,” marketing manager Nikki Metz said. “We think it’s a great partnership and enables us to reach out to the general public.”

In another effort to add to the organization’s bottom line, a fundraiser was held at the Radisson Hotel Harrisburg in East Pennsboro Township, featuring a Michael Jackson tribute band. About 400 people attended.

“This year we’re looking do another fundraiser, something like Artsfest on City Island,” Ponti said. “We’d like to sponsor educational talks related to the Susquehanna River and feature arts and crafts at an event sometime in October. It will either be that or another concert. We are ever changing and evolving with the times. We want to continue to bring this great service to current and future generations for years to come.”

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