Urban Boatbuilders

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St. Paul, Minn.

(651) 644-9225


Objective: To provide experiential learning and personal growth through building wooden boats.

In a Nutshell: Urban Boatbuilders Inc. (UBI) is a youth development organization that uses boat design and building to help at-risk teens develop life and job skills. Teens start in small-group boat-building classes, with a curriculum developed by UBI and local charter schools, juvenile justice institutions and community intervention programs. Those who complete that phase can apply to become apprentices, working after school three days a week, for three hours each day, for a stipend ranging from $4 to $7.75 per hour, based on experience. The boats they build include canoes, kayaks, rowing skiffs, sailing skiffs and larger yawl boats and power boats.

Where and When It Happens: UBI operates its classes and apprenticeships at the Midway Shopping Center in St. Paul, in an empty store space donated by the center, although some community partners ask that the youths build the boats on other sites. Boat-building classes are conducted during the day, and the apprentices come after school for hands-on work. Other activities such as boat launches or river cleanups are done on weekends.

Who Started It and Who Runs It: A group of community development leaders and boat aficionados created UBI in 1995. This year Dave Gagne, a boater, became the nonprofit’s first full-time executive director. Assisting Gagne as the only other full-time staff member is Phil Winger, the boat-building instructor. They rely on adult volunteers from their board and the community to help with some projects.

Overcoming Obstacles: “Probably one of the biggest problems we face now is how to grow the organization,” Gagne says. “We need to develop a strategy for funding, expansion of program and staff.” His stepping in as a full-time executive provided stability for the growth effort, and UBI has forged promising relationships with the local foundations for which the Twin Cities are known. The McKnight, St. Paul, Jay and Rose Phillips, and St. Paul Travelers foundations all support the program.

Cost: This year’s operating budget is $200,000.

Who Pays: Support from the foundations is supplemented with revenue brought in by UBI volunteers and Winger, the instructor. UBI sells donated boats that they refurbish and charges for boat repairs that they make.

Youth Served: Most youth come from the juvenile justice system – they can choose UBI from a number of “pro-social activities” required by the courts – or from charter schools, which often make arrangements for an entire classroom to participate. The youth are between ages 14 and 21, and 80 percent are male. About two-thirds are minorities (mostly African-American, Somali and Latino), and many have a history of “serious juvenile justice or academic issues,” Gagne says.

Old enough to shave: A youth takes some wood off a new boat.

Photo: Urban Boatbuilders

Youth Turn-On: “Who wouldn’t be excited about building a wood boat?” Gagne says. Building a boat is not only something the kids have never done before, he points out, but they “will also launch it, row or paddle or sail it, and have done it well.”

Youth Turn-Off: Teens come into the program and discover that they will be held accountable for their work schedules, asked to do hard and dirty work and be required to have patience and a sense of delayed gratification to work slowly at building the boat. “Some of these teens decide they don’t want to do that,” Gagne says.

What Still Gets in the Way: The donated space UBI has used for a decade may be renovated as a result of large commercial development projects nearby. “We expect to have to move within two years,” Gagne says. “We are beginning the process of looking for on-the-water space, while still trying to keep UBI’s boat shop accessible to regional transit – the way many of our teens get to us."