Clearwater lays off half of staff; could face closure

Schools up and down the Hudson Valley send children on environmental education field trips aboard the Clearwater. (Photo by Alan Thomas)

Among the many entities hard-hit financially by the COVID-19 pandemic are small regional not-for-profit organizations, which tend to operate on lean budgets even in the best of times. For some, the blow from the economy’s screeching to a halt may prove to be one from which the group simply cannot recover. Teetering on the brink of such disaster right now is the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the organization founded by Pete Seeger in the late 1960s to raise public awareness about the ecosystems of the Hudson estuary and the pollution threatening them, by means of building a replica of a historic sailing vessel.

Every year that does not feature fine weather for its biggest annual fundraising event, the two-day outdoor music festival known as the Great Hudson River Revival, is a year that Clearwater must tighten its belt and cut back on spending. That was the case in 2019, when the festival came hard on the heels of a week of heavy rain. Moreover, according to Manna Jo Greene, environmental action director for the organization, “expenses were high” for last year’s festival, partly due to the fact that musical acts are no longer as willing to perform for less than their going rate to support Clearwater’s mission as they had been back in the days when Peter and Toshi Seeger were the Revival’s main organizers. With ticket sales low during the final week before the event and at the gate, the organization sustained a loss of $190,000 from running the festival. “We still had debts from last year” coming into 2020, Greene said.

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Normally, cash flow for Clearwater picks up again with the spring sailing season, when schools up and down the Hudson Valley send children on environmental education field trips, both in the Classroom of the Waves aboard the sloop itself and onshore via its Tideline Program. During the summer, tickets are sold for public sails. But 2020 started far enough into the red that it was decided to scale down the Revival this June, using only a small southern portion of Croton Point Park instead of the entire park, for what was termed “a unique and intimate event for 529 attendees” in a February announcement to members.

Then COVID-19 hit, and not only was this planned mini-Revival off the table, but the spring sailing and education programs as well. A marathon of emergency meetings got underway, with the knowledge that a decision had to made quickly, and putting the beloved sloop in mothballs the least appealing alternative. “This is the most dire circumstance. Unless we turned this around, we weren’t going to make the next payroll,” Greene related.

So last Friday, March 27, the group released an announcement stating, “Clearwater may be faced with closure. To try and fend off that scenario, we are drastically reducing our operations immediately. This includes letting go of more than half of our staff, including several office staff and much of the sloop’s crew. The remaining team will focus on maintaining the sloop, our membership and pursuing any and all options for financial relief and stabilization for a more sustainable organization.” The grim news segued into a passionate plea for donations: “We can save this organization. But if we are to weather this storm, it will only be with your help.”

It certainly wasn’t the first urgent funding appeal issued by the organization over the years, and Greene said that there were mixed feelings about whether there was any hope, given the tremors going through the region’s economy right now, that enough money might be raised in a short time even to give the laid-off or furloughed staff two weeks’ notice. But early reactions to the call for help have been heartening, she reported. “I’m much more encouraged than I was early in the week. The response has been phenomenal — especially at a time when people are so worried about losing their own jobs, or having family members or themselves directly impacted by the virus.” Clearwater executive director Greg Williams concurred: “Given how much everyone has struggled, we were overwhelmed with the response that we got. It has far exceeded our expectations.”

Even if donations pour in at a brisk pace, the organization is by no means out of the woods. “We acknowledge publicly that Clearwater remains in a financially delicate position,” said Williams. Greene herself, who is nearing her 20th anniversary coordinating Clearwater’s environmental advocacy work, has offered to forgo her own salary for the time being — “if it’s legal” — in order not to halt the organization’s progress on such issues as the proposed expansion of the Danskammer power plant and the creation of a regional “roadmap” to reverse climate change. “I am thinking of retiring sometime, but I need a six-month overlap with the person who’s going to replace me. Otherwise it would jeopardize my legacy, the institutional memory that I carry,” she said. “With the Trump administration rolling back environmental regulations, there has never been a more important time for environmental advocacy,” Williams added.

As of presstime, the organization’s future still remained in doubt, but an outpouring of public support was clearly beginning to manifest. “We definitely have to downsize, but maybe we won’t have to go into hibernation,” said Greene. “It shows how beloved Clearwater is, how appreciated and how supported. People do not want Clearwater not to function. If something’s alive, even if it’s ailing, there’s hope.”

To make a donation to help keep the sloop and its programs afloat, visit https://interland3.donorperfect.net/weblink/weblink.aspx?name=clearwater&id=12.

There are 3 comments

  1. TheRedDogParty

    I remember watching Pete Seeger’s program on channel thirteen in the days before PBS. It was a wonderful program. During one episode, Pete described his dream of recreating a historic Hudson River Sloop and have it cruise up and down the river promoting good environmental practice.

    His dream came true only because he remained true to his dream. I hope all of us can remain true to our dreams and that every person who was ever touched by the Clearwater will do what they can.

  2. Marguerite Kearns

    As a former employee of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, I am profoundly sad to hear of the possibility of the organization’s closing. I’ve witnessed it go through many changes over the years. One thing has remained constant—volunteers who loved the sloop and the river. Paid staff has packed up. Others who remember seeing the replica sloop sailing in unexpected places along the Hudson are in a position now to think back to when there was no sloop and no tradition accompanying it. Is there some way to preserve the spirit of this vitally important cultural resource? The Hudson Valley’s definition owes a great deal to Clearwater. If the future is to be redefined, how does this shift to a different venue? I predict a breakthrough in addressing this dilemma, but it must be soon.

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