Cambridge Springs has an historical connection to the river, one that has defined the community and informed its growth since its inception in 1866. While the mineral qualities of the water may have changed over the years, shifting the focus from restorative powers to recreational pastimes, the direct and indirect impacts of French Creek remain undeniable today.
Following a series of community engagement exercises – public surveys, interviews, visioning sessions – activating French Creek stands out as a top priority and opportunity for downtown revitalization.
French Creek has long been regarded as a lifeblood for the community of Cambridge Springs and has received some significant recreation-related investment in recent years. The Cambridge Springs Borough partnered with the French Creek Valley Conservancy to acquire and install a canoe/kayak launch in downtown’s Firemen’s Park with a paved ramp and direct parking access – valuable infrastructure that makes the water more accessible to users. Wouldn’t it be handy if Cambridge residents or visitors could pop over to the park and rent a kayak with the launch right there?
Actually, with water recreation on the rise, there’s an argument to be made for launches all along French Creek, creating a network of opportunities for tourism-related businesses along the waterway.
Paddling is one of the fastest growing forms of outdoor recreation in the U.S. 2020 demonstrated a staggering investment in outdoor recreation, specifically kayaking, where supply has struggled to pace with demand. Water recreation has attracted a whole new demographic and gained significant momentum – a post-Covid trend that experts expect to continue. French Creek is a resource for capitalizing on this growing population of outdoor enthusiasts and will attract visitors to Cambridge Springs. Ample opportunities exist for canoeing and kayaking along French Creek with only one rental operation on this stretch of the watershed.
Scale to fit
A kayak rental business doesn’t have to start out big – there are plenty of ways to scale an opportunity like this. Let the market be your guide! You might start with a fleet of six pre-owned kayaks on a flatbed trailer and grow over time to become a full-service outfitter offering shuttle services, fishing or conservation guide services, and branded gear and clothing sales. You could even partner with a local deli or bakery to offer staged picnic lunches in prime spots between kayak put-in and take-out! Every amenity that you grow into sets your business (and Cambridge Springs) apart.
Options for ownership
When it comes to ownership and partnership opportunities, you’re really only limited by your imagination (and maybe some legalities).
A kayak rental business could be owned/operated by:
- a stand-alone, independent owner
- an existing business as expansion opportunity
- or the Borough as revenue generator for ongoing parks/trail development
- it could even be owned and operated by the local school district or a non-profit organization
Borough involvement in a business enterprise would look a little different than the other models and would likely include provisions to prevent competition with private markets, but a limited Parks and Recreation focus could demonstrate market support for the concept and catalyze ongoing growth.
Possible Business Models
Again, we’re in a fun spot where we’re only limited by the stretches of our imaginations and there are models out there that do just that! Have you ever heard of a Kayak Vending Machine? It’s exactly what you think it is….
Kayak Vending Machine
Communities along the Mississippi River are using a kayak sharing system so they can work collaboratively to build itineraries that encourage water recreation and tourism business throughout their riverfront community network! This system could be installed at various destinations along French Creek either as a robust first step or as a down-the-road option after the industry is proven and neighboring communities are bought in.
Canoe or Kayak Livery
You can probably guess this is the more traditional model by the word “livery” because how often do you hear that word nowadays? But let’s call it classic, or proven, because it’s a successful, straightforward, low-cost way forward and it gets the job done. The “classic” canoe or kayak livery is the individual operator renting kayaks out of bricks and mortar shop, a flatbed trailer, a shed, a pavilion – you get the picture. This option could look like:
- An add-on to an existing Cambridge business (on or near the waterfront would be ideal), OR
- A standalone seasonal facility (maybe located at Firemen’s Park on property leased from the Borough)
Getting kids engaged in the future of Cambridge Springs is good business for everyone. Often, the best way to get kids involved in community projects is to ask them! Give them a little ownership and some authority to make decisions and they’re usually pretty excited to engage! One solution for introducing a small-to-moderate scale kayak rental operation is to partner with the local high school. An entrepreneurship curriculum for students (possibly starting as early as 7th grade) could include the development and ongoing operation of a kayak rental business. Students would learn fundamentals of business development (plus design, merchandising, business accounting, staff management, and more!) while creating summer-time employment opportunities for their peers. A high school trades class is doing something similar to bring an old-fashioned soda fountain to Salem, MO!
While targeted outreach has been made to several private businesses and property owners along French Creek, we’re still looking for the champion of this opportunity. When the right group comes along and is ready to take the plunge, direct them to THIS GUIDE created by the Mon River Towns Program. This preliminary checklist offers a great summary overview of first steps for anyone interested in the kayaking biz.
Who: Placemaking Steering Committee
How:Create list of relevant existing businesses
Conduct targeted, personal outreach to test for interest (phone calls, emails, one-on-one chats – monitor responses and check back from time to time)
Share opportunity through social media channels and the tourism and events landing page
When: Q2 – ongoing until the business opens!
The Progress Fund is a non-profit community development financial institution focused on new or expanding tourism businesses. They serve Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland. They provide loans from $5,000 to over $1 million. Business coaching comes with the loan.