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RiverQuest to explore merger with Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp.

| Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 10:51 p.m.
Built in 2006, RiverQuest Explorer was the world's first environmentally friendly passenger vessel designed expressly to serve an educational mission.

Weeks from folding, the financially floundering RiverQuest might have found the life-preserver it needs to keep its river-based science education program afloat.

RiverQuest's leaders have signed a formal agreement to explore a merger with Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp., a Homestead-based nonprofit formed to preserve Western Pennsylvania's heritage and spur redevelopment across eight counties. The potential solution to RiverQuest's money problems hinges on the findings of a consulting study expected to take 30 to 60 days.

“I'm optimistic that RiverQuest will be financially healthy and go forward with lots of new programs, but we need to be sure about our theory of being able to merge,” said RiverQuest President Jim Roddey, who announced the agreement Tuesday. “The study will show whether or not we can both come together to fulfill our missions and still be able to get the kind of grant support and earned income that we need to make it balanced.”

Roddey warned in April that without a merger in the works, RiverQuest would shut down at the end of this month. The North Side-based RiverQuest, formerly known as Pittsburgh Voyager, has provided hands-on science programs to more than 100,000 school students and another 100,000 members of the general public over two decades. This past school year, the nonprofit taught 7,275 students from 97 schools.

“We would hate to see RiverQuest disappear,” said August Carlino, president and CEO of Rivers of Steel. Carlino said he read about RiverQuest's dire straits in the Tribune-Review and phoned that Saturday in April to see what he could do to help.

RiverQuest's financial woes coincided with school districts tightening their budgets over the past six years or so, since its programs depended on schools providing students free busing and paying a $30 fee per student. The loss of school revenue, combined with the state yanking its annual grants, upended RiverQuest's business model, Roddey said. The seven-employee group slashed its budget nearly in half since 2008-09, down to about $1.1 million, and relied on leaner operating costs and corporate sponsorships to make it through the past year.

Carlino emphasized that a full merger isn't the only option; the two groups could instead form a “strategic partnership of some sort that means each retains its independence and own identity.”

“We have to make sure that what comes out of this is something that makes both organizations stronger than what they are today,” Carlino said. “It can't be something that saves one organization but creates a problem for the other.”

This summer, RiverQuest leaders plan to make extra money by chartering boats for wedding receptions, corporate events and science center tours while doing projects with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

A local foundation that asked to remain anonymous offered to pay for the consulting study, Roddey said.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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