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RiverQuest short of money, looks for a partner

| Friday, April 18, 2014, 11:50 p.m.
Built in 2006, RiverQuest Explorer was the world's first environmentally friendly passenger vessel designed expressly to serve an educational mission.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A teacher leaves from a two-day workshop aboard the Explorer, the shipboard education program run by RiverQuest and docked along the North Shore on the Ohio River on Thursday, April 17, 2014. The nonprofit group will close by the end of June if it cannot find a partner to merge with.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
National Energy Education Development Project program associate Caryn Turrel (right) of Greenwood, Ind., and facilitator Wayne Yonkelavitz of Fayetteville, W.Wa., disembark on Thursday, April 17, 2014, from a two-day workshop aboard the Explorer, the shipboard education program run by RiverQuest and docked along the North Shore on the Ohio River.

RiverQuest, a river-based education program, is so low on cash that it may go out of business.

“If we do not have a merger partner by the end of our fiscal year, which is in June, we will begin closing the program down,” said Jim Roddey, president of the RiverQuest board.

Established in 1995 as Pittsburgh Voyager, the North Side-based RiverQuest offers hands-on environmental education to students aboard Explorer, its vessel that plies the rivers near Point State Park. This year, it welcomed aboard 7,275 students from 97 schools.

The RiverQuest budget decreased from $2.1 million in 2008-09 to $1.2 million this year when the state reduced the amount of money it gave the nonprofit group and school districts. Schools no longer could afford to book trips unless they were subsidized.

RiverQuest relies heavily on foundations and corporations for support, but those groups are encouraging it to get money from other sources. The Heinz Endowments, which declined to comment, has provided about $7 million.

Roddey said RiverQuest met with the Carnegie Science Center about a merger and talked to the state Department of Community and Natural Resources, which runs Point State Park, about how they might work together.

“We have had discussions with RiverQuest, but there are no definitive next steps,” Ann Metzger, co-director of the science center, said through a spokeswoman.

During at least two winters, RiverQuest shut down operations to save money.

David Donahoe, executive director of the Allegheny Regional Asset District, said RiverQuest's finances have been weak for years, he said.

RAD gave the group a total of $245,500 since 1997, but reduced its annual grant to the group from $15,000 in 2009 to $7,500 in 2010 because of concern about its financial problems. RAD increased its grant to $10,000 in 2013 and 2014.

“Members of the staff have been very impressed with the program, and the participants have been excited,” Donahoe said.

Angel Losteter, a fifth-grader at South Allegheny Elementary School, drew water from the rivers and studied plankton under a microscope when she went aboard Explorer to examine the health of the region's rivers.

Told of the program's financial plight, Losteter offered to raise money for them.

“It was a very good experience, and I wouldn't want that to die out,” she said.

Roddey and RiverQuest staff said if the program must end, it will pay all of its bills. Employees would get severance pay, and RiverQuest would return any unspent money from donors, Roddey said.

So far, there is no plan for disposing of its boat, valued at $2.6 million.

Roddey holds out hope for a merger to save the program.

“I would hope that somewhere out there, there's a person who would say, ‘We can't lose this asset,' and we'll have a miracle on the Mon,” he said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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