Recreational Boats Locked Down on the Allegheny River

Speed boats could be heard all over downtown Kittanning as they raced the Allegheny River doing Riverbration this past weekend. The event was hosted in Kittanning Riverfront Park by Kittanning Hose Co. #1 and the Alle-Kiski Strong Chamber of Commerce. In addition to kiddy activities, a car show was held on Sunday afternoon that drew as many spectators as did the boat races.

Even as the last speed boat hummed during Riverbration races this weekend on the Allegheny River, the immediate future of recreational boating looks bleak.

Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that Locks 6, 7, 8, 9 would be closed indefinitely.

Lock 6 is located near the community of Clinton, not far from Freeport. Lock 7 is located just north of the Citizens Bridge in Kittanning. Lock 8 is near Mosgrove and Lock 9 is near Rimer, PA. All four locks are located in Armstrong County.

Engineers Chief of Public Affairs Carol Vernon said that although private funding has been made available the last several years to keep those locks open for recreational boaters, that funding has been pulled as of last Friday.

” In the past few years, in cooperation with the Allegheny River Development Corporation (ARDC), the Corps has been able to do  ‘contributed funds’ from ARDC that gave the Corps enough money to open the locks on the weekends to recreational traffic. Normally we get their schedule based on the amount of funds they can provide. Due to a gap in funding, we have had to close Locks 6,7,8, and 9 indefinitely. What I can tell you is that we do not have the funding (allocated) past today.”

Congressional funding has only been available in past years for locks that have commercial traffic. Therefore Locks 2,3, and 4 closer to Pittsburgh have been funded because of the amount of commercial traffic utilizing the locks. Recreational traffic has not counted for funding from Congress so locks 6,7,8,and 9 do not qualify for government funding since they are primarily used by recreational boaters.

This 2017 KP file photo shows recreational boats “locking through” Lock 7 near Kittanning. The locks are now closed to boaters while ARDC tries to obtain more funding.

“We have had this great partnership with ARDC. It has been a wonderful thing, because ordinarily we wouldn’t have been able to open at all because the Corps does not have the funding to open those locks. Because of the partnership with ARDC, we have been able to open to the public for recreational lockages for the last several seasons.”

Funding of the locks is approximated at $100 per hour. Opening the locks for ten hours on a Saturday would cost the ARDC nearly $1,000. The group has had to raise between $250,000 and $500,000 per year.

ARDC Vice-President Brian Szep said an unfortunate turn of events has depleted ARDC funds.

“We had planned our schedule based on notification that we were going to be receiving funding from a grant. What we have come to find out this week, that our (grant consultant, Joseph Kuklis, deceived us.)”

Kuklis of Pittsburgh, is the CEO of Wellington Strategies, who made promises to ARDC that a grant was forthcoming. Last week, he was charged by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office with running a corrupt organization, theft by deception, forgery, and fraudulent business practices.

Kuklis is being accused of falsely representing to organizations that he had obtained government grants for them, and that he forged letters and documents to mislead clients who paid him to procure these grants.

“We have contacted the Attorney General’s office and asked to be added to the list of complainants since the grant that we were expecting we did not receive.”

Szep said Kuklis had even produced documentation that ARDC would be receiving the grant. Szep now believes the documentation were fake notifications produced by Kuklis.

“We were operating on reserves, believing we were going to have the grant shortly,” Szep said. “Now those reserves are just about spent and we don’t have enough to fund the remainder of the season. The decision was made Thursday to regroup and determine what we can fund.”

Szep said it is the intentions of the ARDC to fund Labor Day weekend, since that is such an important weekend to recreational boaters.

“The real problem is that we are sitting in a hole for the following year (2020). We are going to have to be aggressive seeking assistance to have funding for future lock operations,” Szep said.

There were several major fund raising events that ARDC has done in the past that were not held this year because of a myriad of circumstances.

“We normally have a Lock Kick-Off, but this year, there wasn’t the interest as in the past years. The Board thought we would have legislative assistance, so we did not do Rockin’ for Lockin’ this year.”

The weather has also dealt a difficult blow to overall river navigation, since there has been excessive rain and flooding, making the Allegheny River dangerous for boat travel. ARDC has cancelled lock operations at several days this summer because of weather conditions.

It also appears the seats on the Board of ARDC will be changing amid the funding issues. Linda Hemmes has served as the organization’s president since its inception. In a text to the Kittanning Paper, Hemmes indicated she is  “no longer affiliated with ARDC.” As of yesterday, Hemmes had been removed from the list of the Board of Directors on the ARDC website, although her husband, Marty, is still listed as the Secretary of the organization.

Szep acknowledges that going forward, the task of fundraising is monumental.

“It is still our expectations to be open Labor Day weekend. We will be regrouping this week and resetting a lock schedule based on the limited funding we have left.”

Szep said the organization will continue to accept donations to ARDC, Post Office Box 364, Kittanning, PA 16201.

Spectators watch the boat races from Kittanning Riverfront Park.