Watch now: Rutabaga Paddlesports moving to new water | Business News

Ella Castle

It was more than a year ago that Darren Bush pulled up a Google map on his computer and began studying the landscape, looking for the right water to establish a base camp. Only his research wasn’t focused on the Boundary Waters of far northern Minnesota, the Sylvania Wilderness in […]

It was more than a year ago that Darren Bush pulled up a Google map on his computer and began studying the landscape, looking for the right water to establish a base camp.

Only his research wasn’t focused on the Boundary Waters of far northern Minnesota, the Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or any of the thousands of miles of winding rivers that flow through Wisconsin.

Instead, this was for a one-time trip and resulted in Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Monona, discovering a 2½-acre pond rimmed with cattails, populated by muskrats and geese and, equally important, adjacent to vacant land suitable for retail development in Dane County.

Rutabaga Paddlesports

Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports, will have improved views from his office when his new shop is completed in October. For the past 31 years he has been in a windowless basement office, but a new $3 million store will give him a view of a pond and provide much needed space for his growing business.

The property, just south of the Beltline at 2620 Rimrock Road, is where Bush is building a more than $3 million store that will be the new home for his business, known internationally for its canoes, kayaks, classes and Canoecopia, the world’s largest paddling expo held each March at Alliant Energy Center.

The pond will be used for test floats while the new one-story, 15,000-square-foot facility will offer up a larger sales floor, walls of glass that will flood the building with natural light and a drive-in bay for installing canoe and kayak racks on vehicles. The building will also be carbon neutral thanks to solar panels on the roof, an electric water heater and light-harvesting equipment.

Bauer Builders began construction in early June and is scheduled to complete the project by mid-October, just a few weeks before the existing lease on the Monona location expires on Nov. 1.

Rutabaga Paddlesports

This rendering by Kontext Architects shows the new facility for Rutabaga Paddlesports at 2620 Rimrock Road. Construction started in June and should be completed by mid-October.

“We designed this thing from scratch, from the ground up,” said Bush, 60, who will own the building instead of paying a monthly lease. “It’s not about the equity. I want to anchor the business. I want this to last 100 years. I don’t want to build a cheap building that will fall apart. It’s going to be a beautiful building.”

Started by students

Rutabaga was founded in 1974 by a group of UW-Madison students who began selling paddling and outdoor gear out of their basement. In 1976, the business moved to space at the intersection of South Park Street and Fish Hatchery Road, then to another spot a few blocks away before ultimately moving in 1991 to 220 Broadway in Monona.

Bush started working at Rutabaga in 1990 and purchased the business in 2002. Canoecopia, which began as a sidewalk sale in 1976, has grown to hundreds of vendors, seminars and classes and draws more than 20,000 people a year.

Rutabaga Paddlesports

Josh Twedt, of Stoughton, with his daughter, Emma, secures a kayak to the roof of his vehicle with straps he just purchased from Rutabaga Paddlesports in Monona. The shop has been a staple for paddlers in the Madison area and beyond for more than 45 years.

But the vision by Bush goes beyond his paddling shop, that for now is in the town of Madison but on Nov. 1 will become part of the city of Fitchburg when the town dissolves. He and a silent partner have purchased a neighboring lot at the corner of Latitude 43 Street and Novation Parkway with plans to build a mixed use building with retail on the ground floor and 14 to 28 workforce housing apartments above.

The more than $6 million project likely won’t begin for another year but Bush said the plan is designed to provide much needed housing for those working in job sectors like restaurants and retail.

“There is such a need,” Bush said. “Not everybody works at Epic and can afford $1,800 a month.”

Rutabaga Paddlesports

Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports, surveys the first wall going up on his new store along Rimrock Road.

Access to a pond

The existing Rutabaga is situated next to Yahara Cove, an inlet of the Yahara River that provides access to prime water for testing out watercraft and a starting point for paddling camps. When the new location opens, the 8-foot deep pond, called Lake George, will be getting a floating pier, ramps and landscaping stone, and be used by customers to test canoes, kayaks and paddleboards. Camps will be held off-site so Bush has purchased two vans and trailers.

Rutabaga Paddlesports

Darren Bush started working at Rutabaga Paddlesports in 1990 and purchased the business in 2002.

Most property on the Madison chain of lakes is residential or publicly owned. Any commercial property, if it existed, would have been too expensive, which is why Bush zeroed in on smaller bodies of water not connected to the chain. Bush considered building a pond on land that didn’t have water but said the Rimrock Road location provides more than enough water and is in a prime location, easily accessible to his customers.

“It’s cleaner than the lakes, because it gets flushed constantly due to rain,” Bush said of the pond. “But better yet, there’s no weeds.”

The pandemic increased demand for outdoor products. Activities such as paddling, fishing, biking and other outdoor activities skyrocketed in popularity. At Rutabaga, sales were up in 2020 by 30% but have leveled off.

Rutabaga Paddlesports

The sales floor at Rutabaga Paddlesports in Monona covers 7,000 square feet, but the new store will have 10,000 square feet.

The new facility, with 30% more sales space, was not a reaction to the pandemic but to needs that should have been addressed 10 years ago, according to Bush. The building will include three roll-up glass garage doors for moving boats in and out of the shop with great ease, classroom space, walls of windows, a warehouse, outdoor storage systems, polished concrete floors accented with Turkish rugs and a dedicated space for Orvis fly fishing gear.

Bush will also have a better view from his office, which will be in a corner of the building overlooking the pond. For the past 31 years, his office has been in a basement without windows.

“The project is the realization of a dream of a lifetime,” Bush said as he looked over the construction site. “We wanted something that was a step up (from the existing building) and it’s a significant step up.”

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