Originally published on Waterfront Alliance
One of the founding trustees of the Waterfront Alliance, Paul Balser, cares deeply about families and children, and throughout his life has generously given of his time and resources so that others’ lives may be enriched. He has been a highly successful investor in a range of industries, and co-founder of the private equity firms Ironwood Management Partners, Centre Partners, and Generation Partners. Paul has supported the Waterfront Alliance’s Harbor Camp program from its inception, believing in the value of getting urban children to and on the water.
Next month, the Waterfront Alliance is honoring Paul at the annual Heroes of the Harbor gala for this important, life-changing work. We caught up with him just before he headed off for a fishing trip.
You are a founding board member of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, now the Waterfront Alliance. What promise did you see in this fledgling nonprofit back in 2007 that convinced you to come aboard?
I got involved when the Waterfront Alliance was still part of The Municipal Art Society of New York. Kent Barwick came to me and said, Hey, I’ve got something you might be interested in.
I like to fish. I live on the Upper West Side, and there’s a dock at 79th Street. For many years I’ve been going fishing with a guide. But he said, I can’t pick you up at the 79th Street Boat Basin. He told me I had to go to the end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to get on his boat. I said that’s the biggest crock I’ve ever heard. The 79th Street marina has been there forever. This guy is a certified guide. Why not? That’s why I got involved: the idiocy of lack of access. Waterfront access is better now, but it’s not great. I feel like I’ve attacked something I wanted to attack.
You have joined two of your passions: the water and settlement houses. Please tell us about your involvement with Hudson Guild and the United Neighborhood Houses.
Generally, problems stem from lack of action, not lack of awareness. That’s why I started to work with the settlement houses. My mother was on the board of Hudson Guild. I started to volunteer in 1975 and got on the board, and I’m now the chairman. I’m also on the board of the United Neighborhood Houses, which is a group of 37 settlement houses across New York City. Settlement houses are like community centers, but much more. They deal with everybody, from kids to teens to marriage and child care to seniors. It’s a community interface. At Hudson Guild, we have classes for divorced moms, we make sure seniors have food, and we organize trips to the theater or to Albany for opportunities to speak out. And, we have 300 kids in summer camp, 8:15am to 6pm. You have to figure out what to do with ‘em! The idea with Harbor Camp was to get these kids to the water. Exposure to new things, new ideas; physical activity. It works very well from both sides. The cost is not prohibitive. It’s basically two nonprofits cooperating in a way that benefits both. In my view, we don’t do enough of that in New York.
Next month, you are being honored at the Waterfront Alliance’s Heroes of the Harbor gala for championing Harbor Camp all these years. By the end of this season, the Harbor Camp program will have brought nearly 20,000 New York and New Jersey children to the waterways. You yourself have eight grandchildren. Tell us how you feel about kids and the water, and why Harbor Camp is important.
Many inner city kids do not know they live on an island, or they’ve never been on the water or in a boat. That’s ridiculous. The essence of Harbor Camp is that we get them to the water. The boat people love it because it’s more attention and publicity for them. We reimburse their costs; it’s about 16 bucks per kid per three-hour trip. The kids love it, they absolutely love it.
You’re a fisherman. What is it about boats and fishing that you enjoy?
I’ve owned boats over the years. In 1969 my brother and I and some other guys bought an Army base on Cushing Island in Maine and fixed it up. My kids spent summers on that island. That’s when I got way into boats and saw how many different ways kids can break them and then how you have to fix them. There are about 40 families who live on the island now. We hire a caretaker. We still commute back and forth in boats. It gets you into what a boat really means: transportation. I also used to be a scuba diver. It’s beautiful underwater. All those fish sounds.
We’ve come a long way in the last decade, but New York Harbor is still full of challenges. What’s most important to tackle, in your opinion?
The most important things are learning about the waterfront, devising stuff to do with the kids, access for everyone. The point is, we’ve got lots of stuff to focus on here. The access question, the dock questions. All of this is germane to what we need to do. The Waterfront Alliance exists to make its partners more successful.
What’s your favorite waterfront spot in New York City?
I like Governors Island. I think it’s amazing. Sometimes I can’t believe what it’s turned into. I have taken my kids and grandkids there, even back when it was a Coast Guard base. It’s a marvelous effort to use something in a great way that had been fundamentally unused. But I start with a prejudice: I like islands.