A New Tack for the Aquatic Center 

Change often comes slowly to Oakland, as the decade-long struggle to launch the aquatic center illustrates

Oaklanders are landlubbers. In spite of living on the bay's longest shoreline, Oakland residents haven't had good access to their own waterfront since a fifteen-year-old Jack London sailed his skiff out of the estuary and into the bay. Today, almost no children of that age ever get to sail, row, canoe, or kayak on the bay or its tributaries.

Construction of the new $2.5 million Jack London Aquatic Center was supposed to change all that -- first last year, then last spring, then this past summer. Now, even as winter's squalls approach, the aquatic programs at the center have yet to make much headway. But a flutter of activity is visible. The boat bays are filling up with sculling hulls from the Oakland Strokes rowing club, a definite sign that the year-long battle for control of the facility is almost over. A deal is afoot that will essentially give the nonprofit Jack London Aquatic Center the keys to the Aquatic Center.

The center is literally and figuratively poised between the waterfront's gleaming future and its dingier past. To one side are upscale condos and Jack London Square. On the other is an empty trash-strewn paved lot and an abandoned gravel mill. But the latter is supposed to morph into parks and housing, and the center is emblematic of the coming change. "It is symbolic of the quest to open up the waterfront to the public," said Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, who has worked on the issue since he was an Oakland city councilmember.

The Aquatic Center is the result of almost a full decade of work by the nonprofit group's volunteer board, along with representatives of the city and the Port of Oakland. But the board and the city's Parks and Recreation Department have gone head-to-head over everything from programming to permit issues to who would build a kitchen in the upstairs banquet room. And while a City Council majority now appears ready to let the Aquatic Center board get paddling, Oakland's ever-vigilant Parks and Rec Director, Harry Edwards, still has reservations. Meanwhile, most of the public aquatic sports programs have yet to dip their paddles into the estuary.

"The process we went through to get it built was horrific," said Robert Kidd, president of the nonprofit group's board. "There were fights with the city, fights with each other ... we had to go through dozens of regulatory agencies. But you have to put that behind you and move on."

Money was one problem. Kidd said the Aquatic Center was ready to be occupied in midspring, but Parks and Rec neglected to set aside funds until July.

More ominously, the city also was not ready to let the nonprofit run the center's programs -- which Kidd says was the original understanding since the plans were first drawn up several years ago. The city has a similar contract with the nonprofit that runs Children's Fairyland on the north shore of Lake Merritt.

Shortly after the building was completed, Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb and his staff expressed their concern that the nonprofit's predominantly white board might turn the center into "a private club." Edwards, for one, still worries about that. "This center is for all the people of Oakland -- for the kids of Fruitvale, of Chinatown, of East Oakland -- not just for the wealthy living up in the hills," Edwards said. "If the city of Oakland is going to pick up the bill, the public should have equal access to the facility; otherwise, we are being ripped off."

Edwards has looked out for those who want to steal from the city since he took the helm of the troubled department last year. He made headlines blowing the whistle on staff members who were lining their own pockets with parks money, serving chicken dinners at a rec center and keeping the cash, and traveling to the tropics on $12,000 of agency money. Sports is serious business to Edwards, an author, former UC Berkeley sociology professor, and sports gadfly who organized the famous black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. He noted that Parks and Rec has been burned by nonprofits previously, pointing to a group that offered to renovate a historic building only to turn around and use the space for its own offices.

Edwards' accusations shocked Kidd, however, who thought the board had finally reached an amicable agreement with the city. "The notion that the boathouse would be a private club is embarrassing to me -- it's so contrary to who I am as a person and why I have been involved with this all along," he said.

Board members realize that issues of class and race still surround sports like rowing, which traditionally has been associated with Ivy League colleges and places such as Cambridge, not with Laney Community College and downtown Oakland. But like its upper-class peers tennis and golf, rowing is starting to diversify. In fact, one rower currently setting records on the international rowing scene is Aquil Abdullah, an African American.

"Initially the vision was around building the center, and the board was primarily white males," conceded Alona Clifton, the nonprofit's vice president. "Now with the transition into running programs, it was incumbent on the board to expand and diversify. And hats off to the board for recognizing that themselves."

Clifton herself is an example of the board's efforts to diversify and recruit people with the ability to reach inner-city young adults. An African-American woman and trustee of the Peralta Community College District, Clifton has been on the board for three years -- well before any "private club" rhetoric was bandied about.

Still, despite years of outreach, the Strokes only boast a handful of minority rowers. The $465 per semester in dues it charges may have something to do with that. The organization long has offered scholarships, but as a concession to Parks and Rec, it now will offer scholarships targeted specifically at Oakland kids in need.

Despite the concerns of Edwards, the City Council appears ready to support the nonprofit group. Given the ongoing distrust, it took some pushing from council president Ignacio De La Fuente and councilmembers Dick Spees and Jane Brunner to get a deal brokered. "I was very blunt at the last meeting," De La Fuente said. "I said we are going to walk out of there with an agreement and we did." The council president strongly supports the nonprofit group's goals. "It's no secret that some of the facilities being run by Parks and Rec are not being run in the best way possible. It's our responsibility to correct that."

Kidd pledged that time will provide the proof of the board's good intentions. "Once the contract is signed," he said, "some wonderful things will start to happen at the Aquatic Center."

Wonderful things are what everyone wants. Under the proposed partnership, the nonprofit will run rowing, canoeing, kayaking, and dragon boating programs designed to get Oakland kids out on the water. It also will oversee the rental of boat berths and bays to organizations such as the Oakland Strokes and the UC Berkeley Lightweight Crew Team. Parks and Rec will keep its rudder in the water by running sailing programs at the center as well as watching over the nonprofit's activities.

The deal comes almost exactly one year after the 2000 Head of the Estuary, an annual Oakland rowing race that attracts competitors from all over California. Last year, the competition coincided with the official dedication of the Aquatic Center. Next week's 2001 Head of the Estuary race may mark the symbolic opening of the center and waterfront to Oakland residents. A New Tack for the Aquatic Center

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