Grosse Ile Rowing Club

A longtime dream is on the brink of realty for one Grosse Ile organization

Capital expenditures are necessary to any nonprofit’s growth, and they signify the organization’s vitality. Unfortunately, they often come with a hefty price tag. For the Grosse Ile Rowing Club, that price tag is approximately $1.2 million, the cost required to build a boathouse to support its rowing endeavors on Grosse Ile.

For members of the Grosse Ile Rowing Club, the project is a long time coming. Founded in 1989, the Rowing Club is the primary support for the Grosse Ile High School’s rowing team. According to Grosse Ile High School alumnus and longtime Rowing Club member Scott Sitek, “The high school team is a varsity sport at Grosse Ile, but because of the uniqueness of the sport and the importance of funding, the Rowing Club was created as its primary booster organization.” He adds that the majority of the team’s funding comes from the activities and fundraisers that the Rowing Club sponsors each year.

Scott explains that families remain involved for several years even after their children are finished rowing with Grosse Ile. For his part, he rowed for Grosse Ile High School, graduated in 1996, and was asked to coach when he returned to Grosse Ile a year later. “I’ve been there ever since,” he says. “I’ve been involved as a rower or coach since 1992-1993. I’ve had the chance to coach siblings and work with a number of great parents and great board members. It’s been a big part of our family.”

From providing food at races to coordinating details for spring training camp each year, “it takes a big, big commitment from parents to make the program work,” says Dennis Sitek, father of Scott and another longtime club member. Like Scott, Dennis began rowing in high school, and his involvement with the Grosse Ile High School program started when Scott was in school. He has served on the club’s board of directors for close to 20 years.

To better support the high school team, the Rowing Club began to discuss the possibility of owning a boathouse on Grosse Ile as early as the late nineties. After a lapse in the discussion that resurrected in 2006, the club finally purchased a piece of land from the West Shore Golf & Country Club in June 2015. The Rowing Club also leased waterfront property and parking from the golf club for a 30-year term, with five additional 30-year terms at the Rowing Club’s option.

“Getting the property was a huge step because there’s not a lot of waterfront on Grosse Ile that’s able to be developed for something like a boathouse,” Scott explains. “It really came down to finding the right spot, something that made sense, something that was safe. It’s essentially smack dab in the middle of Grosse Ile between the two bridges, the most sheltered stretch of water on the river.”

In addition to the $1.2 million required for the boathouse itself, the club hopes to raise an endowment fund to offset operating expenses, such as heating bills and maintenance costs. “We are applying for grants and approaching potential possibilities. We’re excited about the potential possibilities,” says club president Eric Flessland, who is spearheading much of the fundraising initiative.

Scott adds, “The process has been interesting, too, because you’re also in a position where you’re learning a lot of this as you go. There’s no set of directions in place. There’s no ‘how to raise 1.2 million dollars to build a boathouse’ book out there – I looked. On the flip side of that, what’s encouraging is that we’ve made significant progress. All of our steps have been pretty darn positive.”

According to Flessland, “There have been some teaching lessons from other rowing clubs’ experiences that we don’t want to repeat. There were other rowing clubs that embarked on the same mission and took out construction loans with the idea that once it was built the money would come in later, and it didn’t happen. The banks foreclosed on the mortgage, and they were in danger of losing their boathouse. We are not going to build the boathouse until we have cash in hand.”

Scott adds that the motivation to build the boathouse stems from a desire to have a place to call its own. Currently, Grosse Ile High School’s team rows out of the Wyandotte Boat Club, a facility it shares with six other schools. The Grosse Ile team typically boasts of 40-50 rowers and currently has seven coaches on staff.

Yet beyond advancing the Grosse Ile High School rowing team, the club seeks to provide more opportunities for rowing on Grosse Ile. “We’ll continue to support the high school program and that will continue to be a priority, but in addition to that we want to run learn to row and rec programs for middle school age, adults, and even seniors. We want this to be something that the entire community if they’re interested in rowing can utilize. We think ultimately, too, that it’s important because we become more accessible for the youth of the community,” says Scott.

Rowing, which the club maintains is a lifelong sport, also follows an impressive legacy. The Wyandotte Boat Club was founded in 1875, the Ecorse Boat Club in 1872, and the Detroit Boat Club in 1839. “This next year will be our 178th year of rowing on the Detroit River,” says Dennis, an active member of the DBC. “That’s before NHL hockey, before basketball, before football, before baseball. As an organized sport, it’s been around longer than anything. When I started rowing in high school, there were two schools in Michigan [with rowing teams].”

That number is now in the twenties. And thanks to Title IX, women in particular have opportunities to gain full or partial scholarships by going on to compete in college. In the last thirteen years, Dennis adds, United States women have won every major world race and Olympics because of the opportunities available at the collegiate level.

Additionally, from a community standpoint, the health benefits are available to rowers of all ages. “When you row, you use 70 percent of your muscle mass,” Flessland explains. “It’s a lifelong, year-long sport, which, considering the obesity epidemic in this country, it really is the best physical activity and exercise that a person can do. One of the things we have done is introduce indoor rowing machines to the middle school and once we gather more experience about that program, our plan is to expand it to K-12.”

He continues, “Indoor rowing has become the fastest growing exercise program nationally, replacing spinning, and all of that is because of its health benefits. One of the thoughts is this boathouse will be able to provide these programs to the community.”

Scott adds, “If I were to sum it up, it comes down to the types of opportunities we could provide. If you take what we’re already doing for the high school kids, we’ll be able to do that for the larger community: to try something new, [to have] improved health and wellness, the opportunity to compete, the opportunity to travel and see new places, the possibility of pursuing competition at a higher level with collegiate scholarships, the opportunity to get involved in something that they can do forever regardless of how much time they have or how much effort they want to put into it. The sport has become something for everybody. That’s become a really special part of it.”

To learn more about the project, readers can contact Eric Flessland at flessland@butzel.com or at 313-983-6901. Donations to the boathouse project can be made through PayPal via a link on www.girowing.com or by sending a check to: Grosse Ile Rowing Club; P.O. Box 385; Grosse Ile, MI 48138

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