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City to use COVID-19 relief money to fund tour boat on Genesee River

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City of Rochester officials have approved steering $150,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds toward a new sightseeing boat on the Genesee River.

The boat would be operated by Corn Hill Navigation, a Pittsford-based nonprofit that also operates the Sam Patch Erie Canal Tours out of Fairport. The company has been awarded a 20-year contract with the city to operate a ticket booth, visitor center, shower and bathroom facilities, and a small watercraft launch. That contract is set to begin on March 1, 2022, and end on Dec. 31, 2041.

The agreement and the use of COVID-19 relief funds for the boat were approved unanimously by the Rochester City Council on Tuesday evening. Both pieces of legislation were submitted by former Mayor Lovely Warren as she neared her last day in office.

The boat was initially floated as part of ROC the Riverway, a $500 million initiative to redevelop the Genesee River waterfront. ROC the Riverway projects have received $50 million in state funding.

Corn Hill Navigation has previously been granted $250,000 in public funding and $120,000 in “private sector funding” to build the boat as well as amenities at Corn Hill landing. The cost of building and delivering the new boat is set to cost around $500,000.

“What’s really special about this is this was not an initiative that was driven by the city of Rochester, it was driven by the citizens, by the neighborhood associations of Corn Hill,” said Norm Jones, Commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Services.

If all goes according to plan, the inaugural launch could take place in the summer of 2022, Jones said.

This won’t be the first time Corn Hill has served as the base for a river-faring boat — Corn Hill Navigation had operated a similar boat from the late 1990s up until 2013 dubbed the Mary Jemison. At that point, as Jones described, the boat was “getting a little long in the tooth” and was decommissioned. A replacement boat was never issued.

Bruce Van Hise, executive director of Corn Hill Navigation, said the boat will dock at Corn Hill and travel outward to western suburbs like Spencerport. He says the project stands to serve as a “billboard for Rochester.”

“The history along that section of the river, we won’t be able to talk fast enough,” Van Hise said. “The Corn Hill neighborhood, the 19th Ward, Mt. Hope Cemetery, University of Rochester campus, Frederick Law Olmsted Park, the canal itself. There’s just a ton of stuff to talk about.”

Jones and Van Hise both envision the boat serving as an opportunity for city school students to explore the region in a way that’s uniquely educational.

The $150,000 comes from the $202.1 million that the city received through the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal relief package meant to help governments across the country buffer some of the damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The city said the project falls under the category of “Aid to Tourism, Travel, or Hospitality” as defined by the United States Department of the Treasury, and is justified.

It’s not the only ROC the Riverway project to receive COVID relief funding this month — City Council approved the allocation of $13 million toward the renovation of the Rochester Riverside Hotel’s second floor into a banquet hall and meeting space. The plan is for it to serve as an extension of the planned Joseph A. Floreano Riverside Convention Center expansion.

Jones noted the sightseeing boat is included in a larger group of project focused on the Genesee’s western banks. Most notable is the rebuilding of the West River Wall, a $7.6 million project that broke ground last year at Corn Hill Landing.

“When you look at the amount of money put into projects like the river wall, the boat is really a small piece of what is being spent,” Jones said.

Jones hopes that the creation of one new boat will open up avenues for greater tourism along the Genesee River. The initial sightseeing boat is capable of holding 35 to 40 people, but Jones hopes that, if the boat is successful, more will follow in its wake.

In the meantime, Jones, who is retiring at the end of the month, said he already has plans to be the first to ride aboard the new vessel.

“I promised that no matter what I’m doing at that time, I’ll be first in line to ride that boat,” Jones said.

Gino Fanelli covers City Hall for CITY and WXXI News. He came to CITY as a reporter in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.