Juneau Park Paddleboats provide affordable fun, unique perspective
Two decades ago, Tim and Val Ritter worked at Foley & Lardner, a major Downtown law firm, and spent a lot of time living, working and enjoying the neighborhood. However, Tim, a corporate librarian, and Val, a legal secretary, wondered why the lagoon in Veteran's Park didn't offer more activity.
"We were always puzzled by this," says Tim.
At one point, rowboats could be rented to explore the lagoon but, according to Tim, rowboat rental was discontinued in the '70s. In 1991, the Ritters decided to start a side business and offer lagoon access to the public.
The couple bought five paddle boats on credit at Sam's Club and formed a private partnership with the Milwaukee County Parks, which they still have today. The partnership allows them to run their private business, called Juneau Park Paddleboats, in a county park.
Tim, the youngest of eight boys, grew up on Okauchee Lake in Waukesha County and has a lifelong appreciation for water sports, particularly boating.
"We love the area and we wanted to bring something worthwhile down here," he says.
The first year, the Juneau Park Paddleboats was only open on weekends and it did OK. The second year it did better and Tim says business has been good ever since. At first, the goal was to quit their corporate jobs, which they eventually did, and then they wanted to get to the point that they didn't have to work during the winter months.
For the past two years, the Ritters have been able to take time off in the winter and visit Tim's parents in Florida. Eventually, he says, they would like to be able to travel more during the winter months, but the business isn't quite there yet.
Although the economy has been a challenge for lots of business owners since 2008, Tim says it didn't affect his small business in the same way. He says people are taking more "staycations" and willing to spend a little money on fun, in-town activities like his paddleboats.
Plus, the prices have been the same for more than a decade. It's $5 per person, regardless of age, to rent a paddleboat for a half hour. It's $10 to rent a remote-control sailboat.
"Val and I are very proud we haven't raised prices," says Tim.
Today, the business has 20 paddleboats, 13 of which were on the water during a recent visit. Numerous remote control sailboats were available, too.
Paddling on the lagoon is definitely exercise, but it can be as aerobic or as relaxing as the paddlers choose. Many people just spend time floating in the middle of the lagoon, whereas others take the opportunity to lap the lagoon and / or get in a workout.
The beautiful trees that surround the lagoon, along with the geese and ducks, create a very natural setting in the middle of the city. The perspective is interesting, too, especially for those who have always driven by the lagoon, but never spent time on it.
Tim describes the lagoon as similar to a swimming pool in its depth gradient. On one end it's only about five feet deep, but it becomes about 20 feet deep on the other end. All kids must wear life jackets, but adults do not have to if they know how to swim. (They sign a waiver either way.)
Every night, the boats are locked up in the middle of the lagoon. A dingy moves the boats to and from the middle of the lagoon.
"In all the years we have been here, we have never had one incident of vandalism," says Tim. "I think that's pretty cool."
Tim says they went back and forth on naming the business. Half of the maps they looked at called the lagoon area Juneau Park and the other half Veteran's Park.
"We decided to go with Juneau Park Paddleboats just because we liked the way it rolls off the tongue," he says.
The Ritters have always been careful about working with nature and not overtaking it. For example, they chose subtle-colored paddleboats even though they are available in much brighter colors. They also don't use megaphones to call boaters back to the dock, rather they trust them to return, more or less, within the half-hour rental time frame.
"We don't want to turn the lakefront into Coney Island," says Tim. "We wanted to do this as low-key as possible. We're stewards of the lagoon."
Also, because Blue Herring have nested on the far south end of the lagoon, they placed a buoy on the lagoon alerting paddleboaters not to go any further so they don't disrupt the birds.
"They're so beautiful when they come sailing up," Tim says.
Over the years, Tim says people have approached him, and the County, wanting to add bumper boats and other water sports, but that no one else has been granted the opportunity because there's a fine line between what works on the lagoon and what would be too disruptive.
Tim says he recognizes growing up on a lake was a privilege and not one that all people have. Consequently, offering water experiences to kids and adults living in the city is one of his favorite aspects of the job.
"So many people come down here who have never been on water. We actually see them overcome their fears and have a good time," says Tim. "Val and I consider ourselves very lucky."
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