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South Portland hopes partnership puts wind in hidden park's sails

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South Portland hopes partnership puts wind in hidden park's sails

SOUTH PORTLAND — In a partnership with the city Parks and Recreation Department, a budding, commercial sailing school's new home is Thomas Knight Park.

Since mid-June, owners Kyle Jacobs, 27, and Tyler Martin, 30, have operated South Portland Sailing Center out of a small shed in the public park and launched their sailboats at the frequently ignored Knightville landing. 

"We're here as a community resource," Jacobs said July 11. 

The arrangement hatched several months ago, when the two owners began searching out new locations on the city waterfront to reduce overhead for their 3-year-old venture.

Jacobs said they previously operated out of South Port Marine on Ocean Street, where fees per linear foot for their boats had them paying as if they operated a 100-foot yacht.

So the sailors approached Parks and Recreation Director Rick Towle with the idea to launch out of nearby Thomas Knight Park, where Ocean Street meets Waterman Drive beneath the Casco Bay Bridge.

According to Towle, the city has long searched for ways to invigorate the park and boat launch, which he said are "very underutilized." The landing is designated for transient boat use, but because of the park's hidden location, few people realize it's there.

Lack of through traffic in the park has also generated criminal activity and frequent police calls in recent years, but Towle said incidents have been declining. 

In exchange for a more affordable location, Towle said the sailing school provides a "positive presence" in the city park that will attract more residents and tourists.

The school also offers discounted introductory sailing lessons through the city for $70 until the season ends on Labor Day. 

The arrangement was approved this spring on a trial basis by City Manager Jim Gailey, with a $1,550 base fee for use of the boat launch. Because their operation is considered temporary, Towle said, SPSC did not need a municipal hearing for use of the park. The launch is still open to other boat owners, whose fees are collected on an honor system. 

"We’ve never made $1,550 a summer there, ever," Towle said of the launch at Thomas Knight Park. "I challenge you to find five or 10 citizens who even know what it is or where it is."

Towle said no one else has expressed interest in using the space, and if other businesses had, he would have put it out for bids.

Jacobs said he and Martin are happy to be "an extension of eyes" for the city, and to make the community more aware of the park and launch.

"By the end of the summer, we’ll have brought hundreds through here," he estimated.

Some residents, however, have raised concerns about a for-profit business operating at a city park. Towle said he sees the arrangement as supporting local business. The city also plans to review the arrangement with SPSC in the fall before considering use of the park again next year. 

"It's limited use," Towle said. "It's not forever."

If it bothers enough people, Jacobs said, he and Martin would be open to moving. But otherwise, they really like their spot.

"We're just a couple of young guys, trying to hang out our shingle and do something good for the community," he said.

Jacobs and Martin describe their school as a comprehensive program for aspiring sailors, ages 30 to 60.

SPSC offers two primary courses: a three-hour introduction class, and a 20-hour basic keel fin course taken over four days. They have four boats, with two operational sailboats for use in classes at this time. Classes are offered Wednesdays through Sundays, arranged by appointment.

They said they are just starting to hit their stride with the older demographic that they believe is under-served in the local sailing community, which often focuses on junior sailors. 

Sometimes, Jacobs said, adults interested in sailing "feel like they may have missed the bus" if they did not sail as a kid.

"We’re here to show people there’s a viable way to get into it," he said.

Both Jacobs and Martin are certified by the American Sailing Association, and live in Portland, although technically, Martin lives on his sailboat in Casco Bay with his dog, Chief. 

Todd Peterson, a Thornton Heights resident, just began sailing, and completed his 20-hour SPSC course on July 11. He said he hopes to sail on the Atlantic.

"(Jacobs and Martin) have the right philosophy," Peterson said. "I'm excited. By the end of this class, it's feasible to become a full sailor in one summer."

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.