Owner of Jack’s Boathouse faces legal battle over property rights

January 24, 2013

Jack’s Boathouse has been renting out kayaks from the Georgetown waterfront for nearly 70 years, but a legal battle is beginning to develop over the rights to the property—and the current operator of Jack’s is alleging that the National Park Service (NPS) has made a deal with a major competitor.

Last December, the NPS informed the owner of Jack’s, Paul Simkin, that the lease would not be renewed at the end of January. A flood of public outcry, including petitions to city officials and a support group on Facebook, has temporarily suspended Jack’s’ closing.

On Jan. 18, the NPS released a Request for Qualifications, seeking new ownership for the property.

“The existing operator, Jack’s Boathouse, will be allowed to compete for the contract and remain in place until the contract has been awarded,” reads the RFQ. “The NPS is committed to protecting park resources and providing access to outdoor recreation, and a concession contract will ensure that the nation receives fair compensation for commercial ventures inside this national park.”

Simkin is angry that the NPS is acting—in his view—as though it can give away his business. “They’re going to put this out to bid, and they’re asking me to bid on my own company,” Simkin said. “They put a thing out that had all of my trade information, asking me to bid against myself.”

Besides being forced to bid against himself, Simkin does not believe the NPS is operating on a level playing field.

“With the Parks Service, it’s weird because it’s almost one hundred percent subjective,” Simkin said, “meaning you can give them the best information, and they can think, ‘We just choose not to use you, and we don’t have to tell you why.’”

Simkin alleges that there may be collusion between Deputy Associate Regional Director for NPS Steve LeBel and other potential bidders for the property. “[LeBel] seems to have some agenda,” Simkin said. “It might even be a sweetener deal for an organization like Guest Services.” Guest Services runs concession stands at the National Mall, as well as Thompson’s and Fletcher’s Boathouses.

NPS Associate Regional Director for Communication Jennifer Mummart denied Simkin’s allegations. “The National Parks Service has absolutely no preconceived notion of who will operate the boathouse under a concessions contract,” Mummart said. “It could just as easily be the existing operator as it could be a new operator.”

When it came time to renew the lease on the property, NPS discovered that Simkin’s name was not on the lease, requiring the issue of the RFQ to legally issue another contract.

Simkin argues that NPS has no right to issue the lease. “There’s been a finding, at least at this point, that the lease that the Parks Service had had with the city for the land was subject to cancellation if the Parks Service ever amended what was going on there on the river,” Simkin said. “They’ve amended it twice since then, we found out, so that means that it’s reverted back to the city’s control and ownership, yet they’ve been acting as if they’ve been the landlord.”

With a legal battle on the horizon, Simkin is beginning to get nervous. “I’m just a mom-and-pop operation here, but I know that there’s going to be a fight,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate one that didn’t have to happen.”

Although Jack’s is closed during the winter, preparations for the warmer months need to begin. “The bottom line is they are just killing me. I have to start hiring folks and buy boats and all that, and I am just paralyzed,” Simkin said. “Here we [Jack’s] are doing well, and big brother, or city hall, or whoever you want to call it, decides they’d rather give it to someone they’re friends with.”

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