Two months ago, RiverQuest president Jim Roddey issued a public ultimatum: Unless the river-based education program found a merger partner, it would have to drop anchor for good.
Now, a Homestead-based heritage organization may have answered his call.
RiverQuest and Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp. announced Tuesday that the two organizations are in talks to discuss a potential merger. Rivers of Steel is a nonprofit that develops historical, cultural and recreational resources across Western Pennsylvania, serving eight counties with sites such as the Bost Building museum in Homestead.
"There's a whole different perspective of Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania that you get when you see the city from the water," said August Carlino, Rivers of Steel president and CEO. "You don't want to see anything like [RiverQuest] disappear."
Founded in 1991 as the Pittsburgh Voyager, RiverQuest provides science education programs for schoolchildren and the public aboard its boat Explorer. The vessel is designed to be an experiential classroom, allowing passengers to interact with and observe ecosystems in the waters below.
RiverQuest has faced financial challenges since school districts tightened their budgets. Whereas schools once paid the $30 fee for each student on the trips, most stopped being able to afford the expense four years ago. RiverQuest now offers its trips free of charge, at the cost of cutting its annual budget in half -- from $2.2 million to $1.1 million.
The organization relies on boat rentals, donations and a few paying school districts to stay out of debt. Mr. Roddey said if a merger occurs with Rivers of Steel, the staff size -- currently seven full time and 25 part time -- may be reduced to avoid any work overlap between the two entities.
While the news release of the announcement stated that RiverQuest and Rivers of Steel will work together on a potential merger, Mr. Carlino said, "just doing more tours with them could be it."
"We have agreed to talk to them about a strategic partnership, which includes a lot of options -- including, but not limited to, a merger," he explained.
The two groups are looking for a consultant to counsel them through the discussions and to conduct a study on the possible outcomes of a partnership. They expect the study to be completed in 30 to 60 days.
RiverQuest had discussed the possibility of a merger with Carnegie Science Center, museum co-director Ann Metzger confirmed. The plans did not move forward because of the funds needed to maintain the Explorer vessel.
"We were certainly interested in the programmatic aspects of RiverQuest's mission," Ms. Metzger said. "However, we did not feel that we could take on the vessel. The business model is such that it would take an enormous amount of fundraising."
If RiverQuest does not secure corporate support or a merger within the next few months -- its fiscal year ends next Monday -- it will likely shut down, Mr. Roddey said.
"But we will go out with dignity," he added. "We have no debt, we haven't drawn on our line of credit, and all of our bills are paid."
Despite RiverQuest's financial predicament, demand for its school tours continues to grow. Its participation has increased from 3,500 students to nearly 10,000 annually over the past four years.
Mr. Carlino, whose organization has partnered with RiverQuest in the past, has been on the boat tour several times. Both of his children also attended schools that participated in the educational programming.
RiverQuest's educational mission sets it apart from other boat tour groups, Mr. Carlino noted.
"We talk about the importance of STEM education and where the world economy is going," he said. "If we can excite children and make them interested in science, we've done a world of good."
Students at Mt. Lebanon Montessori School, which has built RiverQuest into its science curriculum, agree. In a letter to the editor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, upper academy students Jaya Patel, Philip Pollice and Honora Armfield credited their RiverQuest field trip with teaching them about boat safety and the ecology of Pittsburgh's waters.
School director Adrienne Benestelli said students look forward to the trip every year.
"It brings the environmental issues facing our city alive," she said. "The children can see how clean our rivers have become by testing the waters directly."
Yanan Wang: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.