Cover Story

Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club Grows with the Flow

Current Events

Executive Director Ben Quick

Executive Director Ben Quick

 

Ben Quick recognizes that the Connecticut River, particularly the stretch that runs through Springfield, has what he calls a “checkered past” as … well, not the cleanest riverway, and perhaps a negative reputation in some corners, based on that past, that lingers today.

But those who actually use the river for recreation on a regular basis — and Quick, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club, certainly counts himself among them — tell a much different story.

“People who come to our riverfront here in Springfield for rowing or dragon boating and see what we have, between the quality of the water and the views and the infrastructure, say, ‘why aren’t there 10 clubs here? Why isn’t everybody out on this water? Why aren’t more people enjoying it?’” Quick said.

It’s a message he likes to share. “The mission of our organization is to bring guests, visitors, and residents of Greater Springfield to the riverfront for some healthy, outdoor, fun recreation. The river itself has got a checkered past, and part of our job is to enlighten people with proper information, safe experiences, and a positive takeaway, so they go home and tell their friends, ‘hey, you know what? The Connecticut River in Springfield is absolutely gorgeous, and there’s all kinds of fun stuff you can do there. Why not check it out?’”

“People who come to our riverfront here in Springfield for rowing or dragon boating and see what we have, between the quality of the water and the views and the infrastructure, say, ‘why aren’t there 10 clubs here? Why isn’t everybody out on this water? Why aren’t more people enjoying it?’”

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club (PVRC) was established by a small group of rowing enthusiasts in 2009 to promote river-based recreational activities, sporting activities, and river access in general.

“They got together on a patch of grass a little further downstream from us and organized as a rowing club,” Quick noted, adding that they put a proposal together to occupy what is now the club’s home, at North Riverfront Park on the river’s shore, in a building that dates back to 1901.

“Since then, we have grown our organization from a small group on a patch of grass to about 50 kids, about 60 adults, and hundreds of visitors every year who participate in our programs,” he told BusinessWest. “We started off as a rowing organization … in fact, PVRC originally stood for Pioneer Valley Rowing Club. But soon after we were organized, we expanded and offered dragon boating, which is the fastest-growing water sport in the world. And we realized that we had much more to offer than rowing. So that’s where Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club came from.”

Speaking of dragon boating, the 10th annual Springfield Dragon Boat Festival is coming up on July 20, and has become the club’s premier event (more on that later).

A dragon boat team navigates the Connecticut River

A dragon boat team navigates the Connecticut River in the 2023 event.
(Photo by D. John McCarthy)

“The rowing and dragon-boating programs have just blossomed,” Quick said. “They are kind of niche sports … not a lot of people know about these sports.”

But he considers it his mission to make sure more people find out every year.

 

Stern Challenge

Quick’s involvement in the PVRC began with a connection through one of his sons, who is 24 now, but discovered rowing while attending a Springfield middle school that had a connection to the club.

“One day, he came home from school and said, ‘Mom, Dad, my school has rowing, and I’m doing it.’ My wife and I were like, ‘this sounds great. Who knew we even had that?’ And as he started to get involved, we as a family got more involved too, saying, ‘this is a wonderful thing. More people need to hear about this.’”

At the time, the PVRC was volunteer-driven, with very few full-time, paid employees, and Quick and his wife, Julie, became active in the organization. A few years later, in 2015, when the club was looking for an executive director, he was encouraged to throw his hat in, and was offered the job.

“I think having a positive first experience certainly sets people on a trajectory that we’d like to see them continue on. And kayaking is the easiest way for us to help people have a fun time.”

“It was a big family decision,” he recalled. “I had no nonprofit experience; I had corporate-world experience, but no one could question my passion for the organization, my passion for the sport, and my passion for seeing the thing grow. And my family was behind me because, when you move from the corporate world to the nonprofit world, you’ve got to make some sacrifices. But for us, it was a great opportunity.”

The club has also become an ideal opportunity for people of all ages to get in the water and learn a new pastime.

A dragon boater paints the head of her team’s boat

A dragon boater paints the head of her team’s boat.
(Photo by D. John McCarthy)

“Kayaking is a wonderful first experience for on-water recreation,” Quick said. “For so many of the kids and adults from Springfield who come down here for kayaking, this is their first experience with a boat on the water, ever. And we’re super proud of that. I think having a positive first experience certainly sets people on a trajectory that we’d like to see them continue on. And kayaking is the easiest way for us to help people have a fun time.”

Kayaking is offered on Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays, and throughout this summer, kayak rental — normally $20 per hour — is free, thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation, though donations are accepted.

The club offers rowing programs, including one called SAFARI, which stands for Summer of Activity, Fun, and Rowing Instruction, which is for kids age 12 and up.

“It’s kind of like a summer camp, but only a couple hours a day,” Quick explained. “We get them out in boats, we teach them safety, we teach them instruction, and on a rainy day we’ll stay on land and play some games. It’s just a two-week program to get kids interested in rowing.

“From there, the sky’s the limit,” he added. “We have a competitive racing team comprised of a few middle schoolers and a bunch of high schoolers. They race in the spring and the fall athletic seasons, as well as in the summer. We travel as far away as Philadelphia to race other programs. It’s a really cool sport, and these kids learn things that no other sport is going to teach them. They say rowing is the ultimate team sport.”

Then, of course, there’s dragon boating.

“Dragon boating is a lot like canoeing, except you’re in a dragon boat with 19 other paddlers, plus someone steering and someone drumming. So it’s a party barge, but for canoeing,” Quick said. “And we can teach someone how to dragon boat pretty quickly. It’s a short learning curve, but it’s a lifelong pursuit toward perfection. We have a wonderful dragon boating team that meets in the evenings because it’s an adult program.”

The Springfield Dragon Boat Festival, which is free for spectators, draws hundreds of people to the riverfront each summer to watch teams race, while enjoying entertainment, food trucks, face painting, crafts, and other activities. Team registration (at pvriverfront.org) ends July 10, and this year’s event will be held Saturday, July 20.

“Anyone can do it. We had a group one year that was a family reunion,” Quick said, adding that teams of inexperienced dragon boaters — companies, organizations, families — compete in an all-neophyte division. “They get one practice session, and then we throw them in a boat.”

The other division is comprised of teams of people who compete in dragon boating as a sport. “They train all winter, they lift weights, they get strong, and then they hit the water and race each other. So you don’t have those teams competing against the community teams, but they are amazing to watch. The intensity of a race is incredible. They only last one minute — the fastest times on the race at our festival will be sub-60 seconds.”

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club offers rowing activities for all experience levels

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club offers rowing activities for all experience levels.

In addition to the races and family fun, Quick noted, “we have a cultural presentation because there’s a side of the festival that doesn’t get spoken about much, but we hope will get spoken about more, which is that a dragon boat festival is an important cultural holiday in China. It’s a celebration of patriotism, and of longevity, and of life. So there is a cultural aspect of the Dragon Boat Festival that is shared by our dear friends at the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts.”

 

Pulling Together

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club presents other events as well, including youth and adult regattas, and recently, for the second straight year, it hosted the 1.2-mile swimming portion of an Ironman triathlon, which also includes a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run.

“I was told that, last year, 40% of the participants were local, and I think, for 60% of the participants, it was their first time,” Quick said. “So let’s hope that trajectory continues. It’s certainly positive for the business community, for the economy here.”

He’s also gratified that the river’s health — and reputation — have come such a long way since the 1970s and 1980s, when raw sewage was regularly dumped into the water. These days, it’s much cleaner, he noted, and when sewage spills into the river after a storm, it’s generally safe to swim or row within a day or two.

“Every time there is a spill of sewage into the river, it gets reported. And that’s a wonderful piece of legislation — I think transparency is really important to improving quality. But we do have safety protocols, and we are aware of river quality. I give a lot of credit to the Connecticut River Conservancy for spending the money and providing the resources to do weekly water quality testing.”

Beyond enjoying a healthier river, Quick simply enjoys the tranquility of the pastime.

“When you’re on the water, even right here in Springfield, and you look to the shores, and all you see are green trees, and a few buildings poking over it, you could be in Vermont. It is amazing how tranquil the river is.

“I’ve been a lifelong athlete, but I haven’t been rowing for that long; I’ve been rowing for maybe 10 years. When I came to the sport with other men and women my age, I realized this is something we can do. You know, we don’t have to have been playing this sport since we were 4 years old in order to have a fun, competitive experience. So I realized, ‘hey, this is great.’”

It’s also a lesson in teamwork and pulling together toward a common goal, which is certainly a positive experience in these often-discordant times.

“If you are not moving in complete harmony with the person in front of behind you, you’re going to bump into each other. And that can lead to some aches and pains and bruises,” he added. “But if you work together, it is such a thrill. It is such a rewarding experience.”