Clearwater organization looks to right the ship after recent turmoil

Shipwright apprentice Emily Cichon and shipwright Chelsea Fisher work on the sloop’s hull in a recent photo. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

Shipwright apprentice Emily Cichon and shipwright Chelsea Fisher work on the sloop’s hull in a recent photo. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

This summer, for the first time since it became a regular annual event at Croton Point Park in 1979, Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival Festival isn’t happening.

In what one observer characterized as “a perfect storm of problems,” the non-profit organization founded by Pete Seeger in 1969 with the launch of the sloop Clearwater which began the crusade to clean up the river, is in a fiscal hole.


The crisis, which has caused much turmoil and last week led to the group’s executive director resigning, began in a weather-related collapse in the profits made from last year’s Revival Festival. That shortfall led to a cash crunch just as an extraordinary high bill for the sloop’s restoration is coming due.

The cost for the three-year rebuilding of the 45-year-old boat’s hull, which should be complete by May, is $850,000, of which $340,000 is covered by a state grant. Clearwater sources said so far a total of $425,000, including the grant, has been raised. That means the organization has to come up with the difference — a task made more challenging given that last year’s two-day fest netted, after expenses, only $31,000. That compares with an average profit of $162,000 in the six years prior, according to Clearwater’s former finance director Roger D’Aquino, who was quoted in a news report. (Despite multiple requests by this reporter, neither Clearwater’s current treasurer nor board President Annie Osbourn were made available for an interview.)

The rebuilding of the boat has resulted in a further loss of revenue due to a shortened sailing schedule, with the boat not sailing for nearly two months in the fall and two months this spring. (The sloop is scheduled to resuming sailing in June). Scheduled sails on the boat by groups and the public contribute to revenues, as do new memberships signed up at the festival.

Clearwater Treasurer Stephen Smith’s statement in a recent article in the Poughkeepsie Journal that “we could literally shut our doors” if more funds aren’t received in the next two months paints a dire picture of an organization in distress, an impression enhanced by the resignation of executive director Peter Gross a couple of days later and reports that the entire Revival Festival staff, including the director and assistant director, had resigned — a statement that one festival committee member said was inaccurate.

Manna Jo Greene, who as environmental action director at Clearwater launched many of the organization’s environmental advocacy campaigns, including the fight to close Indian Point and the cleanup of PCBs dumped by GE into the river, said she was confident the organization would survive the current ordeal.

“The outpouring of support up and down the river and from beyond has been overwhelming,” she said. A Jan. 24 fundraising concert at the Rosendale Rec Center, the first in a series of concerts planned over the next few months (see sidebar), netted $12,000, though the venue only holds 200 seats. “This is the people’s boat and the people are responding,” Greene said, noting that the current fundraising plan reflects the approach of Pete Seeger, pre-Revival, when he was passing the hat at concerts to raise money to build the sloop.

Given the nearly million-dollar up-front cost of putting on the Revival festival — the same amount of money it’s costing to rebuild the sloop — the decision to cancel was prudent, added Dave Conover, Clearwater’s education director. “If it was a washout” — as was the case last year — “it would put us in a bad place,” he said, adding that Clearwater is committed to resuming the festival in 2017.

Rick Nestler, a Monticello resident who is a former crew member, serves as an educator and is a coordinator of the Circle Song stage at the festival, said he is “rather optimistic. This is not the first time we faced this kind of situation.”

One problem has been the escalating costs of the festival, said Nestler, who’s been with Clearwater since the 1970s. It costs thousands of dollars to rent Croton Point Park — which used to be free, before Westchester County began charging — and pay the big-name talent, which in some cases entails the rental of a limo. “In the earlier days, when [Pete Seeger’s wife] Toshi was running it, she’d say, ‘We’re paying you $800, but how much do you plan to donate back?’”

Return to the old ways

The decision to host many smaller events — Nestler is organizing five benefits, including a Seeger tribute concert of maritime music in New York City on March 6 — is a return to Clearwater’s roots. Nestler said planning for the festival ran into problems last fall, after both the director and assistant director had resigned. Without a director or adequate seed money, the Revival Planning Committee submitted a statement to the board of directors advising against having the festival, with a commitment to definitely put on the festival in 2017.

Unfortunately, the mayor of Croton — who wasn’t informed of the decision until it appeared in the press — “was blindsided … this whole thing hit the media a bit earlier than people expected and made it sound like the entire organization is blowing up,” said Nestler. “It’s not. The problem is lots of highly dedicated people disagree on how to accomplish certain goals.”

Nestler, who like many Clearwater crew members is a musician, said former director Gross was the fall guy. “He seemed like a pretty decent guy … he’s the only executive director that had some kind of feeling about the musicians and believed in paying them something. In a situation like this, heads have to roll. Peter insisted there was going to be a revival, which was a misstatement.”

Noted Gregg Swanzey, a Kingston resident and former city official who served as captain of the Clearwater in the 1980s and later as executive director “for the same amount of time Peter was director,” that is, 18 months: “it’s a very challenging job and a very passionate organization, which makes it difficult.”

Some long-time Clearwater members and volunteers say Clearwater has lost its way as it has morphed from a band of volunteers who ran the office into a professional, multimillion dollar organization with a specialized paid staff.  One problem, these critics say, is a lack of transparency in the board of directors’ dealings and communication with the membership. “I want to see the organization restructure and move away from systemic dysfunction,” said Maryellen Healy, a former Clearwater crew member and long-time volunteer. “They should work with a mediator to get a real working board and sense of openness and support and involve all the volunteers and members.”

Secretive board?

Environmental journalist Roger Witherspoon, who has been covering Clearwater for 15 years as a reporter and wrote about the organization’s current woes in his Energy Matters blog, which appeared online on The Huffington Post, said there’s been a “disconnect” in the last couple of years in that the board makes decisions “in secret.” “If the members are feeling uneasy and not getting open lines of communication with management, it makes it difficult for the organization to go forward,” he said. “After the confrontation between the staff and Gross at the end of October” — presumably about canceling the festival, which Gross opposed — “the board imposed a code of silence, then this letter suddenly circulated to the activists delineating that everyone had quit. Management wouldn’t explain why.

“There needs to be a lot of candid talk about the fiscal status,” he added. “The board needs to say, ‘Here’s the books, the grants we anticipate and here’s how much we have to raise by this date, here’s our list of prospects, here’s what we’ve done and what suggestions do you have going forward? Everyone needs to have the same knowledge.”

Witherspoon said the frequent turnover of executive directors — “Gross was the third director in five years” — was another problem. “One needs continuity to get fiscal profits. If grantors see an organization in turmoil they’re not as likely to come to the rescue.”

Cooperative solution

Yet operating a multimillion-dollar nonprofit ”requires that some things need to be kept somewhat confidential,” said Swanzey, who’s been there. “Communication can’t always be spilled out to the public in an immediate way. You need to reduce the sense of risk if you want people to invest. You need to project confidence. Sometimes that’s hard to do. The other side of it is, it’s a membership organization and they own the ship, so there’s a certain responsibility. It’s a delicate balance between the two — how you serve members who are the owners and move the organization forward. There needs to be a basis of people working together.”

“Clearwater has changed so many people’s lives, you can’t just throw money at the problem,” said Healy. “Let’s look at doing things differently. Let’s talk with a mediator to ensure the same problems don’t keep occurring and people can call the office and get a friendly answer.”

When the charismatic Seeger was alive, getting out of the hole was easier because “Pete knew a lot of famous people. When the organization got into trouble, he could make calls and get what he needed,” recalled Nestler.

There is one comment

  1. TheRedDogParty

    I remember Pete Seeger’s television program ‘Rainbow Quest’ on Channel 13 in NYC before PBS was PBS. Building a historic Hudson River sloop to ply the waters of the Hudson was his dream.

    As the Clearwater has matured as an organization, it has changed. This is not necessarily a negative, only that the funds that are required to keep the current organization operating are most daunting.

    Pete never stopped giving concerts at local libraries. Everything he did had an intimate and human touch. I’m sure that being too big to fail was not something Mr. Seeger ever envisioned for the Clearwater.

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