Green Guardian

Green Guardian

How Patrick Conway plans to save a Cleveland landmark

Seeing green: the Whiskey Island Coast Guard Station
Photo courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project

Seeing green: the Whiskey Island Coast Guard Station

Patrick Conway wants Cleveland, the very definition of pollution in the evening of the industrial era, to be the greenest city in the country. He also wants the long-shuttered Coast Guard Station on the tip of the Whiskey Island causeway transformed into an educational/tourism/ecological complex. How those relate will come clear at Burning River Fest Saturday and Sunday, July 24 and 25.  Not that Fest goers will think that hard about all that. They’ll be too busy having fun.

Pat Conway is president and founder of Great Lakes Brewing Co., a wildly successful operation with a restaurant across from the West Side Market that's regularly packed with fans of quaffs bursting with Cleveland character. He also is the force behind Burning River Fest, a celebration marking its 10th year – for the first time, over two days. Burning River 2010 will take place at the Coast Guard Station. 

This will be Burning River’s second year at the Coast Guard Station, a Streamline Moderne complex including a main building, a garage and a boathouse that the Coast Guard abandoned in 1974. The architect was J. Hilton Dyer, who also was architect for the Cleveland Athletic Club and the First Methodist Church. The Albert Higley Co. built the complex in 1939 and 1940 for $360,000. The city of Cleveland, which owns it, recently spent $500,000 on a new roof; Conway says rehabilitating the entire complex could cost $10 million to $12 million. The main stumbling block, aside from financing, is access: the only way to reach the station is via a causeway, itself only accessible from Whiskey Island’s Wendy Park.

What a place.

“Here, in Cleveland, we’ve got industry and nature,” says Conway, a Rocky River native who has never lived far from a Great Lake (he lived in Chicago for 10 years, teaching English to inner-city kids). “I think it’s great theater to be out there fishing or having lunch, and watching barges and sailboats, planes from Burke. Where could the most perfect place be for an environmental fest than Cleveland on the river that caught fire in 1969?” [pictured left: mid-century postcard of station courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project]

Burning River, which aims to combat the image of the Cuyahoga River catching fire on June 22, 1969, an event that made Cleveland a national joke, has been at Great Lakes Brewing Co., Voinovich Park and Nautica. “Nautica wasn’t green enough, Voinovich Park most people don’t even know where it is, and we outgrew the brewery,” he says. “I think we’ve found a home.”

Last year’s Fest was “fabulous,” according to Carol Thaler, program officer for the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission. “It was a great place to really experience the lake, experience the city.” The Fest is expected to draw 5,000 to 10,000 people, Conway says. His marketing staff is working with Cleveland-based Lambda Productions, which handles production for such events as the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee, tours by Phish and deeply green performer Jack Johnson. 

Burning River “is a small event for us,” says Lambda Productions CEO and founder Hadden Hipsley, “but I think the growth potential for the city and the region is huge, and more importantly, the cause behind it and Pat’s passion for the cause probably persuaded me to help in any way, shape or form that I can to make the event a success.”

The Brecksville native came up through Belkin Productions as a promoter but eventually decided he wanted “to be on the other side of the tent.”

“I want to give something back to the area,” says Hipsley. “Between Pat’s passion and that, the math added up, and there was good reason to get involved.” Hipsley says he has been in conversation with county officials and the office of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and all parties “realize the value of this location.”

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