What’s Happening with the Lowell Showboat?

It will look like a boat, but it won’t be a boat. That’s the plan for the next phase of the Lowell Showboat, according to a committee working on the issue.

Liz Baker offers some opening remarks at the start of Thursday’s informational meeting.

More than 50 people crowded in council chambers on Thursday night to hear what the Rebuild the Lowell Showboat committee envisions as the future for what is arguably the city’s most treasured possession. After brief opening remarks from Liz Baker, executive director for the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, attendees heard a brief overview of the showboat’s history. Then, Lou D’Agostino, chair of the Rebuild the Lowell Showboat committee, took the floor to share how they hope to replace and improve the boat.

Flood Waters Blamed for Showboat Closing

The Lowell Showboat can trace its history back to 1932 when the George Washington – as the first boat was called – was christened. “The showboat started following the centennial events of 1931,” explained Lisa Plank, executive director of the Lowell Area Historical Museum. “[City leaders] liked what they saw with people flooding into town, and they wanted to recreate that.”

It was decided that a showboat with a ministerial show, created in the style of the famous Mississippi riverboats, would be the right way to keep visitors returning to Lowell again and again. The first show drew an audience of 5,000 people who paid 25 cents apiece to watch the performers.

The remains of Showboat #4 after straight line winds destroyed it in 1978.

The George Washington would only last five years, and four more boats would be constructed to replace it. The current boat – built after straight line winds destroyed its predecessor in 1978 – is the longest lasting version of the Lowell Showboat. Previous boats were in use anywhere from 5 to 19 years.

With the exception of the years during World War II, annual concerts were held on the Showboat until 1997. In more recent years, the Showboat has been the backdrop to the Sizzlin’ Summer Concert series put on by the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce and has hosted Santa for his visits with children in December.

A record-setting flood in 2013 marked the beginning of the end for boat number 5. The showboat, which has long been docked next to the riverwalk, took on water and became damaged during the event. Despite attempts to make repairs, D’Agnostino said it became apparent the current showboat had come to the end of its lifespan.

New Structure Envisioned as a Year-Round Facility

Last year, the Board of Directors for the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce made rebuilding the showboat one of its top priorities. A community study was done, and the Rebuild the Showboat committee formed. Thirteen members sit on the committee, and they are drawn from the surrounding townships as well as the city.

While the committee plans to use the same footprint as the current Lowell Showboat, D’Agnostino says the replacement will not actually be a boat. “We want to make it look like a boat as much as possible, but it won’t float,” he said.

Instead, a permanent structure will be built over the water. It is hoped the structure will retain elements of the current boat, such as the paddlewheel, smokestacks and captain’s cabin, but the interior may be reconfigured to make it more useful for meetings and events throughout the year. D’Agnostino says the committee would like to have electricity and heat onboard, but there are no plans for any plumbing.

View of the Showboat in 1948

Along with a new structure to replace the boat, the committee would like to create a permanent stage to replace the portable one currently used by the Sizzlin’ Summer Concerts. When asked about whether Santa visits would continue, D’Agnostino said, “We plan on Santa being on that structure as long as Santa wants to be on it.”

Should It Be a Boat or a Structure?

The audience appeared largely receptive to the plans for the showboat although at least one person asked if there had been any consideration to buying a used boat to replace the current one.

“A structure is a structure, and a boat’s a boat,” said one man in attendance. He noted used showboats are sometimes sold for $100,000 – $300,000 which is significantly less than the $1.5-$2 million price tag the committee thinks the permanent structure and stage may cost.

Baker responded that the community study conducted by the Chamber last year indicated people wanted a permanent structure. It was also noted that the problem with a boat is the high maintenance cost associated with it. “If it’s a million dollars cheaper, that leaves a lot for maintenance,” was the audience member’s reply.

However, the committee’s perspective appears to be that it makes little sense to buy or build a floating boat with a limited lifespan when a permanent structure could better fulfill the role of the current boat. The shallow depth of the Flat River has meant the showboat hasn’t moved from its dock along the Riverwalk in decades. Instead of a floating entertainment venue, the Showboat is now used as a backdrop for community events, a function that could be just as easily filled by a permanent structure.

How the Community Can Help Rebuild the Lowell Showboat

The good news is the current Lowell Showboat won’t be going anywhere. “The showboat will stay [along the Riverwalk] until construction starts,” D’Agnostino said, “but the public won’t be allowed on.”

Lou D’Agnostino explains plans for the showboat and how the community can help.

The bad news is that it could be as long as two years before the boat is replaced. Since the structure is being built over the river, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality needs to sign off on the plans. The Rebuild the Lowell Showboat committee has sent preliminary plans already, received feedback and is preparing to send its finalized plans. Once submitted, it could take the DEQ six months to a year to process and approve the paperwork.

“Keep it alive,” D’Agnostino said when asked what the community could do to help. The lengthy approval process could mean people lose interest, and the committee chair encouraged everyone to keep talking about the showboat in the coming months. People can leave their personal memories of the showboat on the Lowell Area Historical Museum’s website.

For those who want to take more concrete action, letters of support for the plan can be sent to Senator Dave Hildenbrand’s office. Those letters will be forwarded to the DEQ, and strong community support may help move the project along.

As for fundraising, there is already one GoFundMe page in place for rebuilding the showboat, but the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce won’t officially launch its fundraising efforts until the annual Rotary auction on April 28th at the Grand Volute. Rotary has agreed to donate the auction proceeds to the showboat fund, and community members are encouraged to either donate auction items or attend the April event. City Hall can connect people to the appropriate contact in Rotary for more information.

What is your favorite memory of the Lowell Showboat?

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