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Pittsburgh river-focused nonprofits' merger becomes official

| Monday, June 22, 2015, 1:55 p.m.
President of RiverQuest James C. Roddey holds up a photo of students aboard the RiverQuest Explorer 'floating classroom' as he talks at a press conference announcing the intended merger of Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation and RiverQuest along the North Shore on Monday, June 22, 2015. The boards of directors of the two nonprofits are merging the organizations, bringing together the historic, environmental, and educational endeavors of the two groups.
Strasburg | Trib Total Media
President of RiverQuest James C. Roddey talks at a press conference announcing the intended merger of Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation and RiverQuest as the Ohio River and helm of the ship are reflected in the windows of the RiverQuest Explorer docked along the North Shore on Monday, June 22, 2015. The two non-profits' boards of directors are looking at merging the organizations, bringing together the historic, environmental, and educational endeavors of the two groups.
From left to right, President and Chief Executive Officer of Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation/Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area August R. Carlino, President of RiverQuest James C. Roddey, Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation/Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area Chairman W. Franklin Reed, and Senior Vice President for Program and Policy at The Pittsburgh Foundation Jeannie Pearlman, Ph.D., talk at a press conference announcing the intended merger of Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation and RiverQuest as the Ohio River aboard the RiverQuest Explorer docked along the North Shore on Monday, June 22, 2015. The two non-profits are said to be developing a business plan that will expand Rivers of Steel's historic and cultural tourism and RiverQuest's educational 'floating classroom.'

The 90-foot floating science lab known as RiverQuest no longer is a sinking ship.

The financially foundering North Side nonprofit, formerly called Pittsburgh Voyager, is merging into Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp., a Homestead-based nonprofit that aims to preserve Western Pennsylvania's natural, historical and recreational resources.

The boards announced the merger agreement Monday on RiverQuest's dock outside the Carnegie Science Center. The votes followed a year of studies and negotiations to ensure a merger was a viable solution. The state must approve the legality of the merger before it becomes official.

“This adds a whole new dimension to our programming, and it's something we've always wanted to get into — it's been really difficult for us to get on the river,” said August Carlino, president and CEO of Rivers of Steel, who said he read about RiverQuest's dire straits in the Tribune-Review in April 2014.

He plans to maintain the school-based program and expand use of the boat to paid tours, including ones marketed to out-of-state visitors on motor coach tours.

Rivers of Steel is acquiring RiverQuest's assets — namely, a boat valued at $2.5 million and the educational curriculum aligned with academic standards at schools. Carlino said he values the expertise of RiverQuest's boat crew and teachers, most of whom will stay on as employees.

Since its 1995 inception, RiverQuest has hosted field trips for more than 100,000 children in grades K-12 and served another 100,000 members of the general public. Last year, the program hosted 8,000 to 9,000 students. Lessons ranged from collecting water and mud samples and analyzing the contents under microscopes to learning about water conservation and protection amid the natural gas drilling boom.

“We worked really hard on this merger, and it's nice to see it come to fruition, but more importantly, I'm really pleased that our educational tour program is going to continue,” RiverQuest President Jim Roddey said. “It's an important service to the community because we're teaching young people about the economy, ecology, commerce and the roles the rivers have played in the history of our whole region.”

That educational program, however, likely will be put on hold this fall while the boat gets “repowered” with a hybrid engine, which was one condition of the merger, Roddey said. The goal is to resume school-based tours by spring.

Some merger details are being worked out, including how many board seats Rivers of Steel will extend to RiverQuest board members, and how many administrative staff from RiverQuest may lose jobs. Roddey said laid-off employees will be offered severance pay; Carlino said he's hopeful that they apply for positions under Rivers of Steel.

RiverQuest's financial woes coincided with school districts' tightening budgets. It depended on schools providing students free busing and paying a $30 fee per student. It finished the fiscal year ending June 2014 with a $220,000 deficit — despite slashing expenses from $2.1 million in 2013 to $1.28 million, tax records show.

Rivers of Steel spends $1.26 million annually and finished the year ending December 2013 with a $465,000 surplus and $5.1 million in net assets.

It manages one of 49 national heritage areas and a state heritage area. Its major projects include the Carrie Furnaces in Rankin, The Bost Building in Homestead and the Battle of Homestead site at The Waterfront.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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