Owner of iconic Austin boat rental company trying to save it as contract issue looms

The co-owner of Zilker Park Boat Rentals is trying to get it historical landmark preservation status, so she can save her family’s 55-year-old business.

AUSTIN, Texas — Zilker Park Boat Rentals has held a prime location near Barton Springs since 1969. But now, a contract issue is threatening to move them out.

Laura Massengale’s parents Dorothy and Howard Barnett started the boat rental company with just nine canoes 55 years ago.

“I think it’s the number one bucket list place to go to experience old Austin,” Massengale said. “We’re the original ‘Keep Austin Weird’ people.”

What’s threatening the business?

Every five to 10 years, the company has to put their contract out for a bid. Massengale said over the past few years, the bidding process has become more difficult, especially with the Zilker Park Vision Plan that will no longer be moving forward.

In 2024, the city was supposed to put out their new contract around May, but it hasn’t happened yet.

“If this were to shut down or if someone else were to run this, they would raise the prices,” Massengale said. “The whole vibe and business model would change, and I think it’s very important to keep it.”

Massengale and her sister recently purchased 51% of the business, officially making it a woman-owned and Hispanic-owned business. She said even though the business has grown over the years, they still try to keep the prices reasonable and feel local.

“We’ve gotten a little bit bigger, but we’re committed to staying a small business because of the area and the environmental concerns,” Massengale said.

RELATED: ‘We need to get this right’ | Austin City Council will no longer consider Zilker Park Vision Plan

A memory of “Old Austin”

Many longtime Austinites also have fond memories of Zilker Park Boat Rentals from the beginning.

“It was a little shack before and way less boats,” said longtime Austinite Michael Stover.

Stover said he has been coming to the lake for the last 30 years and grew up coming to the boat rental place since his childhood.

“Me and my wife actually, probably our second date, we came down here, so it’s been part of the family for a long time,” Stover said.

Since the location holds special meaning for many Austinites, Massengale is trying to get it a historical landmark preservation status or a legacy business contract, so they can save their family business. She’s started a petition online calling on the City of Austin to make that change.

It’s something many other Austinites also want to see in the city.

“We’re losing way too many Austin treasures,” Stover said. “This is one of the things that we love, as well as Peter Pan Golf and Sandy’s, so we want those things to stay as long as we can, so we don’t lose what Austin was made of.”

RELATED: Lease extended for beloved Austin mini-golf course

The Owners

Massengale said her father was one of the first to put boats on Lady Bird Lake.

“He was driving across the lake and said, ‘I don’t see any boats. People need to be out here and enjoy the water and enjoy nature and seeing nature,’” Massengale said.

Both of Massengale’s parents, the original owners, Dorothy and Howard Bartnett were also founding members of the Austin Sierra Club.

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