After more than five years of planning, the Princeton National Rowing Association (PNRA) is poised to start work on a large-scale expansion of the Caspersen Rowing Center on the shores of Mercer Lake as early as next spring.
The expansion will add 20,000 to 30,000 square feet to the current 19,400 square foot facility, as well as more than double available parking.
"The final size of the expansion will depend on where we end up with our fundraising," PNRA Executive Director Kris Grudt said.
Grudt added that the majority of the expansion will consist of indoor workout space, expanded locker rooms, and a couple additional boat bays including a heated shop bay; the more extensive version of the plan also includes potential office space for USRowing as well as a home for the National Rowing Hall of Fame and Museum, which is now without a home after having left Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.
The boathouse currently serves approximately 450 junior rowers, a few dozen masters rowers, and anywhere from 25 to around 100 USA national team rowers at any given time.
"We hope to bring together the junior programs, the masters programs, the National team, and then possibly USRowing and the Hall of Fame," Grudt said.
The current space currently can accommodate about 34 ergs, while the proposed plan would accommodate an additional 64 ergs, for a total capacity of 98. Other components of the plan include an increase in locker room capacity from the current space for 12 women and 12 men to 60 women and 60 men; additional workout space specifically dedicated to the national teams; possibly a dedicated physiotherapy area; an additional launching dock, a café/cooking area that could be used by teams in training; and flexible spaces that would be used as needed, whether for training, stretching, meetings, or other functions.
Grudt also said that there was discussion about adding a rowing tank, but that the various constituents using the facility felt it was less essential than having more general workout space that could accommodate varied uses.
"We want to make sure we take care of our mission-critical items first, which is flexible workout space for the athletes," Grudt said. "After that, if we have to reduce the expansion, we will be working on which parts of the larger plan we will try to keep."
The plan would also add a new 128-spot parking lot, as well as a gravel overflow lot with another 81 places, more than double the current 90 spaces.
The PNRA has raised just under $5 million of the $9 million target to date, with a contribution from Mercer County still to be finalized, over $1 million from the three local schools that use the facility (Hun, Lawrenceville, and Peddie), another $1.5 million from groups and individuals that would be part of a "Friends of Tim Hosea" fund in honor of the former PNRA president who passed away in 2015, and then additional pledges from alumni and families in the overall Mercer Rowing group. In addition to their funding commitment, the county is also going to contribute paving and other elements of the project.
The project architect is Bob Hiller of Studio Hillier in Princeton; Hillier's previous firm designed the current boathouse.
The current target is to break ground on the project in March 2018, although that will depend on the pace of fundraising; Grudt said that they definitely expect to be underway "within the next year." Grudt said that current operations will not be dramatically affected. Additionally, the project could get underway while fundraising is still in progress.
"The project is designed to be phased, so we could start on one part of the project, and add to that as possible," Grudt noted. The overall build is slated to last about 12 months.
"It is designed to be built around the current facility, so the impact to our current operations will be minimal," Grudt said. "I am sure there will be some impact, but we will be able to keep operations at current levels throughout the build."
The entire facility resides on protected wetlands, and the entire Mercer County Park was originally purchased by New Jersey Green Acres, so the PNRA began work over five years ago on obtaining permits for the work. The process included getting retroactive permits for areas that had been paved by the county without permission, all of which are in place at present.
"We knew that we couldn't do a lot of fundraising until we knew that we could actually build on the site," Grudt noted. "About a year ago we got the final environmental and other permits that will allow us to build on the site."
The main facility would remain the Caspersen Rowing Center, and at present the addition would be named for Dr. Hosea, but naming opportunities for boat bays, the locker rooms, the café, and other spaces both general and specific may be available.
The current facility was built in phases over several years, with the first build in 1997-1998 to accommodate the prep school programs, and the second major phase completed in 2003-2004 to create the US national team and Mercer junior bays, as well as the current office space.
Mercer Lake was formed in 1975 when a need for flood control on the Assunpink Creek that feeds the lake coincided with the need for fill for the creation of interchange at I-295 and I-195 about six miles away; the gravel from the lake was used to fill in the wetlands upon which the interchange was built.
A story that one of the engineers on the project may have been a rower who saw the potential for a rowing course on the location was thought to be apocryphal, but Grudt spoke recently to retired longtime park administrator Bill Furman, who recounted working on tying the first version of the race course to tree trunks even before the water had filled in. Then-USRA director Chris Blackwall was also brought in at the time to confer on the feasibility of the lake's use as a rowing course, so the "rowing engineer" story may well be true.
Fundraising continues on the expansion plan, which will likely break ground in Spring 2018