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Rowing Club set to build dream boathouse at the island end of Merrill Barber Bridge


With the much-anticipated signing of a lease with the city, the Indian River Rowing Club is about to start power-stroking its way toward its dream home: a $2 million boathouse on the Indian River Lagoon at the east end of the Barber Bridge.

“We believe that Vero Beach is going to build a rowing culture in a big way,” club spokesperson Shotsi Lajoie said on the eve of the scheduled lease-signing. “Just as golf and tennis are all throughout Vero, rowing is going to be part of the lifestyle here.”

With one 25-year-term for a total of $625 rent, and an optional second 25 years to be renegotiated in 2040, the club now begins fund-raising for the structure. The firm of well-known Windsor architect Scott Merrill is on board to design the building – two of its architects are rowers – and Lajoie predicts a “beautiful, signature structure” for MacWilliam Park.

The boathouse land is directly behind the building housing the Volunteer Ambulance Squad. Lajoie says no oaks will be removed from the site. Space for a 100-foot floating dock is in the plan as well.

The rowing club, founded in 2008 from a boathouse in Fellsmere, began working on a home in Vero in 2010. Initially the group tried to get a lease on another part of MacWilliam Park, a piece of the large tract being used as an off-leash dog park. 

That didn’t fly with dog owners, and last March, the city signed a 10-year lease with the newly created Friends of the Vero Beach Dog Exercise Area, Inc., with the option of renewing for another 10-year-term.

Meantime, while the dogs used prime park real estate, the rowing club had to make do with a spot under the Alma Lee Loy Bridge, behind the sometimes malodorous sewage treatment plant. Leased to the rowing club and the Youth Sailing Foundation, it will remain the location for the sailors, Lajoie says.

“It’s windy there, which is good for sailing and not so good for rowing. Fifty percent of the time it’s unrowable,” she says.

The club’s prior location had another advantage: its president is Todd Young, an engineer for the city who has an office in the treatment plant. “It was serendipitous that we had a rower there,” says Lajoie. “He was instrumental in helping us with the politics of dealing with the city.”

A large part of the club’s persuasion power was its recruitment record. In two years, the club managed to muster 50 student rowers, enough to form boys’ and girls’ teams at both Vero Beach High School and Gifford Middle School.

The girls, undaunted by the humbling practice locale, nicknamed themselves the Trolls and rowed like mad. Last spring, the freshmen team came in first in a state competition.  

Two girls have made it to collegiate teams. This fall, Chris and Peggy Hollinger’s daughter Ruby, founding captain of the club’s girls’ team, walked onto the freshman Division One rowing team at Notre Dame.

And Grayson Pensch, the 17-year-old daughter of Chris and Ramona Pensch, just won a scholarship to row for Florida Tech in Melbourne.

Both are from Vero Beach High School.

 “One of the things we’ve stressed to people is rowing is good for scholarships,” says Lajoie.

The students, who pay $1,300 for a school year of rowing, train five days a week with coaches paid by the club.  In addition to two part-time coaches, the club just hired its first full-time director of rowing,   Gary Marra, who rowed for Stetson University.

It also raised $80,000 to buy the pricey boats called shells; it’s gone from owning four two years ago, to owning 20 today.

Indian River Rowing Club is anxious to expand its outreach. It’s currently offering scholarships to the Boys and Girls Club and is working with Community Church’s Crossover program to include some of the high school basketball players it mentors.

“People get it,” says Lajoie, a psychotherapist and artist who has rowed since college. “They see that this is really going to benefit the whole community, but it’s really going to benefit the high school kids.
“And as soon as we can, we’re going to start a college program. I’ve already talked to IRSC. All we have to do is put it in motion.”