This story was updated on April 12, 2013.
Last August, Molly Snyder wrote a profile on Tim and Val Ritter, founders and owners of Juneau Park Paddleboats in Veterans Park. At the time, the Ritters told OnMilwaukee.com that they considered themselves proud "stewards of the lagoon" at the park, where they have been renting paddle boats for 16 years.
Now the Ritters report that they have lost their contract with the Milwaukee Parks Department. They have to dismantle their shed and remove all equipment by April 18. Juneau Park Paddleboats will be replaced at the lagoon by California-based Wheel Fun Rentals, a franchise which operates close to 100 locations around the country.
"We set that business up," Val Ritter told OnMilwaukee.com. "There was nothing there (at the park) before we came there. It’s not sour grapes, but it’s like David vs. Goliath, that this big franchise can come in and just basically bid you out of the water."
Ritter says that Juneau Park Paddleboats’ bid to renew their contract was "proportional to their income" (they have refrained from raising prices for over a decade) and suspects that Wheel Fun Rentals did recon work on their business model before submitting a bid that the Ritters could never hope to match.
"The county had to call me to let me know that somebody had filed an Open Records Request for our income," Ritter said. "They didn’t tell me who it was, but it had to be them (Wheel Fun Rentals) in preparation for their bid. I’m sure that’s who it was."
Juneau Park Paddleboats has resolved, however, to not go quietly into the night. The Ritters unsuccessfully filed an appeal with the Parks Department. Now they have a late April hearing with the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee of the County Board of Supervisors.
"We would like to retain our operation down there (at the park)," Ritter said. She says that Juneau Park Paddleboats has gone to great lengths to be "low-key" and comply with the county’s requests over the past 16 years. She says they were initially denied a shed to house their equipment in the late 1990’s, and that when the shed was approved by the department "they said don’t ever come back and ask for an upgrade."
The shed is still without electricity, barring the Ritters from selling concessions as their contract allows.
"So it’s all these little things, that if we could sell concessions we could make more money and pay more money to the county," she said. "But they seem to have contracts all over the place as far as percentages go and I think the people at Veterans Park are paying a higher percentage than a lot of these other vendors are."
It’s a bitter pill for the Ritters to swallow, especially considering that the reason given by the Parks Department for their acceptance of the Wheel Fun Rental bid was due to the larger company having more extensive equipment to offer.
"We’ve always run it on a very low-key level because that’s what the county insisted on, so now to say ‘Now we want to change the rules’ just seems wrong to us on so many levels," she said.
The Milwaukee County Parks Department did not return OnMilwaukee.com’s call asking for comment.
Val Ritter fears that "all they (the Parks Department) are looking at is money, money, money" and asserts that the old administration under Sue Black was friendlier to small, locally-owned businesses.
"I don’t know what their criteria was last time for denying then (Wheel Fun Rentals unsuccessfully bid for a contract to rent bicycles at the lakefront in 2007) but I think Sue kind of recognized these businesses down there that built up from nothing," she said. "These guys are basically writing a check for all the sweat equity we’ve put in and the client base we’ve established. So they’re walking into a ready-made gold-mine, you know?
"If this business wants to come into Milwaukee county, let them go to a different park and establish themselves and then bid against us down the road as a local vendor."
The Ritters are asking for public help in their mission to save their 16-year-old business. In a recent email, they asked supporters to write letters or email Gerry Broderick or Jason Haas, the chair and vice-chair of the Parks, Energy and Environment Standing Committee and express support for Juneau Park Paddleboats in their effort to continue operations at Veterans Park.
Ritter says that someone has already been to the park to take photographs of Juneau Park Paddleboats’ shed. "I’m assuming Wheel Fun Rental is already in the process of trying to put something in there to get their building established," she said. "If we lose this appeal, that’s our last effort."
For more information, contact the Juneau Park Paddleboats online, via phone at (414) 466-7235 or (414) 217-7235 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.