Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Young entrepreneur testing Pittsburgh water via pontoon rentals

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Thing One and Thing Two are now in the water, christened in champagne at the Sharpsburg Islands Marina and ready to launch Boat Pittsburgh, a new pontoon rental business in the Pittsburgh pool.

With all the water that runs through Pittsburgh and nearby boroughs, you might think Nicole Moga would have lots of competition for her fledgling business. You can rent kayaks and charter tours, but there's a paucity of opportunity to steer your own party on the water if you don't own a boat.

Ms. Moga and her friends rented pontoons occasionally from a company that provided them at the Millvale Waterfront Park for several years, she said, "but they disappeared. That's when I thought, 'If no one else is doing this, I will.' "

Ms. Moga has financed two boats with 60 horsepower engines, hoping to add to the fleet if her business takes off. A Troy Hill resident, she grew up boating on Lake Mohawk in Carroll County, Ohio, and came to Pittsburgh to attend college.

"I grew up on speed boats and skied and carted friends around in a pontoon," she said. "In Pittsburgh, I didn't have a boat, and being so close to water made me nostalgic."

She and friends rented at the Millvale marina for several years before she began researching how to start her own boat rental business. She took a class on how to write a business plan and sought small-business advice through programs at Chatham and Duquesne universities.

Ms. Moga ran a survey to gauge interest on Facebook and got 237 responses.

"Based on the ZIP codes, the interest is pretty wide geographically," she said. "Even boat owners are interested. I'm confident it's going to be a hit."

Ms. Moga, 32, is following her bliss after previously working as a graphic designer and a branding and marketing staffer for the Community Technical Assistance Center. She is operating Boat Pittsburgh while working part time as Tree Pittsburgh's office manager.

Each pontoon holds up to 10 people. Rental rates drop the longer your party is out -- $80 for one hour, $260 for four hours, $360 for eight hours. Holiday rates are $500 for eight hours. Rentals are available every day from sunrise to sunset through October.

If you have a valid driver's license, you can drive a boat, but you must be 21 before renting from Boat Pittsburgh and must sign a waiver and get a safety briefing at the dock. Boat Pittsburgh is a limited liability company whose policies are stated on its website, www.boat-pgh.com.

Ms. Moga said that Thing One and Thing Two, named temporarily for characters from Dr. Seuss, will be given permanent names in a boat naming competition this summer.

The Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone, or ARTEZ, helped Boat Pittsburgh find its site in Sharpsburg, which has a private and public marina. ARTEZ was founded eight years ago to help businesses in Allegheny River boroughs but has expanded into community development and trail advocacy, said Iris Whitworth, the executive director.

"We worked directly with the borough of Sharpsburg to help locate a place to moor their boats," she said. "We thought it was a great opportunity for Sharpsburg to provide tourism and for the community. There are very few sites like that in the Pittsburgh pool."

It is surprising that Pittsburgh has so few boat rental opportunities, but it's also surprising that someone hasn't figured out how to publicly transport people around the rivers. I banged the drum for support of water taxi fleets for several years, certain that such an amenity would be a no-brainer. How enhanced the quality of life in the city would be if you could hop a water taxi from the South Side to the Strip, from the North Shore to Lawrenceville, or Homestead, or Aspinwall.

While a few efforts showed promise in the 1990s, nothing regular or reliable has ever taken hold, due largely to fears and costs of liability, politics, naysayers and the need for infrastructure investment.

Pittsburgh has come such a long way toward appreciating its rivers, with trails, housing and other amenities that make use of river frontage. Maybe organizations that have advocated for these can think of a way to enhance the actual river experience to give Boat Pittsburgh some company.

For more information, visit www.boat-pgh.com.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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