Georgetown canal boat tours face uncertain future after NPS ends partnership

A rendering for a project to improve one of five plazas along the C&O Canal. The project is in jeopardy after the National Park Service's decision to terminate a philanthropic agreement, according to Georgetown Heritage.(Courtesy Georgetown Heritage)

There are lingering questions about the future of Georgetown’s C&O canal boat tours, after the National Park Service announced it’s ending its philanthropic agreement with the nonprofit Georgetown Heritage.

Last month, NPS said the agreement is being terminated effective April 29. However, in a statement, the agency said the move doesn’t “change the operation of the canal boat in Georgetown.”

D.C.’s government paid for the construction of the canal boat and Georgetown Heritage, the nonprofit that works to improve National Parks in Georgetown, owns it. The organization operates the boat under a separate agreement with the Park Service.

Maggie Downing, Georgetown Heritage’s executive vice president, said the group’s ownership of the boat isn’t in jeopardy, “but what it will take for us to be able to raise the money and keep this organization going is certainly going to be challenging in the next couple of years,” she said.

“We do remain committed to owning and operating the boat,” Downing said. “But I think it may be a difficult path getting there.”

The nonprofit will have some time to work toward that goal. The boat won’t be operating for the next two years while repairs are made to the canal. The soonest the boat would be able to return to the canal is 2026, Downing said.

About 40,000 people have participated in the tours over the two seasons they were offered, according to Downing.

“It’s a really leisurely experience to look out and see Georgetown from a different vantage point, and to learn about the history, to hear the stories of the people who built the canal and who lived their lives along the canal,” Downing said.

Georgetown Heritage operates the boat under a cooperating agreement with the Park Service. The Philanthropic Partnership Agreement allowed the nonprofit to fundraise for projects in the park.

The group had plans to make accessibility improvements along the towpath, and to install “recreational opportunities down at the aqueduct, a dock for canoeing and kayaking along the canal,” Downing said.

“The cancellation of the Philanthropic Partnership Agreement really puts the future of any of those improvements to the park in danger,” Downing said.

In its March statement, the Park Service said terminating a philanthropic agreement is rare and happens “only after exhausting all other avenues to try to resolve the issues.”

“There have been multiple violations of the Philanthropic Partnership Agreement that have led to irreconcilable differences in the partnership, making it impossible to maintain the collaborative relationship necessary to accomplish mutually identified goals as required by the PPA,” the Park Service said in a statement to WTOP. “Georgetown Heritage has promoted actions that disregard the NPS mandate to protect park resources.”

The agreement, Downing said, was terminated because “current leadership at the park no longer wants to pursue these projects.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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