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Running the River

by Melissa Auman Greiner
…From the pages of Camden County Advantage…

The Cooper River Race Course brings both regattas and revenue to Camden County.

Cooper River Park, parts of which can be found in Cherry Hill, Collingswood, Haddon Township and Pennsauken, may be best known for its family-friendly amenities and free events like concerts, festivals and Fourth of July celebrations. But on many mornings, before most of us are ready to venture outdoors, before the park fills with children and the picnic tables are spoken for, it’s already alive with activity.

Beginning in March and continuing throughout the fall, crew teams are hard at work cutting through the water and preparing for the annual rowing season. The teams may put in the hard work to stay fit or for a shiny first-place cup, but for the Camden County businesses involved, the rewards come from the spectators who will be watching these teams compete.

The Cooper River Race Course is host to more than 10 full-scale regattas each spring and summer, turning the usually peaceful waterway into a rowing mecca. From the NCAA championships to annual events like the Knecht Cup, the river welcomes all ages and skill levels to its shores. Rowers range from high schoolers to professionals, with regattas that feature anywhere from 500 to 2,000 participants.

Sandi Kelly, director of economic and business development for the Camden County Improvement Authority, says the river lures in top events thanks to its size and shape. “The Cooper River is a nationally recognized course because it has a 1.25-mile straightaway and is rarely affected by harsh wind and current conditions,” she says. “This type of location lends to a fair course in the sport.”

In addition to ideal water conditions for the rowers, friends and family enjoy the park’s spacious spectator area with a stellar view of the course. According to Kelly, up to 4,000 people find their way to the banks for each event. “There are bleachers at the events, and teams and spectators set up gazebo-type picnic tents throughout the park for viewing the races,” says Kelly. “There are also vendors for food and other rowing-type vendors. Many of the teams have their tents catered by local businesses.”

That commerce has made the Cooper River rowing season much more than mere entertainment. According to Kelly, an economic impact analysis in 2004 by Rowan University discovered that 10 rowing events brought in more than $12 million to the county. “Since then the number of events has increased a bit, bringing the projection to approximately $15 million,” says Kelly.

The study also concluded that more than 200,000 meals and 13,000 hotel room nights directly resulted from the regattas. The river’s close proximity to shopping and dining destinations like the Cherry Hill Mall and The Marketplace at Garden State Park as well as the tourist attractions of the Camden waterfront have also brought big business to the area. With such a positive revenue stream resulting from the events, it’s no surprise that the county has dedicated devoted resources to improving the race course.

Officials from Camden County, the Cooper River Rowing Association, and the Philadelphia Sports Congress recently welcomed representatives from FISA, the international rowing association, to help determine what improvements should be made to the river and park to improve the area as an international rowing destination. Their feedback led in part to a plan the county is currently working on that would raise $4 million in funds to improve the course and the park over the next three years. “These improvements will include river bank stabilization, course design improvements, multiuse paths and lighting and other course amenities,” says freeholder director Louis Cappelli, Jr.

In 2006 the Camden County Boathouse was completed, becoming home base for the area’s rowing clubs and supporters. Operated by Rutgers University, the boathouse not only houses shells, but also a number of meeting rooms that look out over the water and are available to rent. “The boathouse is a spectacular facility that has truly become a major attraction to the international and national rowing communities,” says Capelli, Jr. “It has really helped to boost Cooper River’s reputation as a premiere competitive rowing destination.” The upstairs banquet room of the boathouse has also become a popular venue for more formal affairs like weddings, thanks to its stunning view and dual balconies.

For those looking to get on the water themselves, there’s also the Cooper River Yacht Club. Home to a bevy of beautiful sailboats, the club is the place to go for a leisurely outing on the river. It also holds a variety of classes, including sailing, power boating and general boat safety for children and adults. A number of clinics and camps for all skill levels are offered during the warmer months.

Whether you’re rowing the river or watching from the sidelines, the Cooper River offers something for all county residents to enjoy. Use it as a backdrop for family together time or a special occasion and let the fun begin.

Published (and copyrighted) in Camden County Advantage, Summer 2009.
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