Banking on the River: Schuylkill River Development Corporation Hits Their StrideBy Erica Vanstone |
The meandering path, known affectionately as “Schuylkill Banks,” the 1.2-mile trail next to the temperamental river that winds from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Locust Street, is run by the Schuylkill River Development Corporation — and maintained by Josh Nims, the Operations Manager.
A lawyer and community activist, Nims came to Schuylkill Banks as a volunteer, after working with the city to help develop suitable public space for skateboard use as one of the founders of Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund.
“In 2006, I was asked to be the volunteer organizer, and when I got here, I saw there was a larger need for maintenance and a 24-hour monitoring program. I worked all summer like I was the Operations Manager. When things shook out at the end of the fall, the Executive Director, Joe Syrnick said, ‘You need to create a job description and a title.’ So I did.”
“When this trail first started, it was a no man’s land,” echoes SRDC Executive Director and CEO Joe Syrnick. “As soon as the trail started to get graded (in 1999) people started to use it. Slowly, it grew to 8 or 9 thousand a week. Now we have 19,000 users a week, which is almost more than we need.”
When You See It, You Get It
Syrnick, who worked for more than 35 years as the City of Philadelphia’s Chief Engineer and Surveyor, went from overseeing a staff of more than 350 to a staff of less than five at the nonprofit Schuylkill River Development Corporation. But when he came to SRDC over seven years ago, Syrnick felt the organization was a place whose Board of Directors were active enough to help him accomplish much, and where the trail itself would ultimately become its own greatest marketing tool.
“Our area of interest is from the Fairmount Dam, 8 miles down to the Delaware River. And that’s the plan, to build the existing 1.2 miles all the way down. This year, we’ve added a section down in Grey’s Ferry, called the Grey’s Ferry Crescent, that’s .7 of a mile. So we have roughly 2 miles of the 8 miles built. And if we add a section of property that’s further down river, it creates an urgency to connect them.”
The trail — and the development plans for public space along the Schuylkill River — has been in the works since the mid-70’s, when it became the brainchild of legendary Philadelphia urban landscape designer, John Collins.
“It sounds like a bit of a cop out, but what takes these projects so long to develop is raising the money,” says Mark A. Focht, the First Deputy Commissioner, Parks & Facilities at the Department of Parks and Recreation, whose office provides operations support like irrigation and long-term capital planning to Schuylkill Banks.
“Fundraising for these projects is a challenge, but fortunately, now that people are using the trail, we no longer have to convince people of the value of Schuylkill Banks. People see it, they get it and they love it.”
Small Staff, Big Impact
Schuylkill Banks’ community offerings include kayak tours, movie nights by the Walnut Street Bridge and Grey’s Ferry Crescent, and will eventually feature the return of the river boat trips along the trail — all run by the SRDC’s nimble four-person staff and volunteers.
“The benefit of a small staff is that everyone is talking face-to-face all the time. Everyone is helping out on each other’s projects or our programming. There aren’t a lot of orgs that have that level of intimacy with their communication.”
At any given time, there are a handful of development projects in the works, such as a forthcoming boardwalk taking shape near the South Street Bridge.
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