The Boatel

Summer in the yard at the Boatel.

When Jon Neubauer bought a small waterfront establishment in 1971, his friends told him it would never work.

He wouldn’t make it, they said, because it was too far out of town. No one, his friends told him, would go there for a cold beer or stiff drink after work because all the hot spots of the day were in downtown Fairbanks. What in the world was he thinking investing in that patch of land on a dirt road called Airport Way?

Flash forward 48 years and that waterfront dive is now one the hot spots in midtown Fairbanks, with the Boatel celebrating its 48th birthday this year, highlighted by the business’s eighth annual birthday party this weekend. It’s a long way from the perception of a sleazy waterfront bar despite a plaque inside deeming it so.

“My husband Jon, he had a following of people that really enjoyed the Boatel, and of course, a lot of it centered around in the summertime on the river,” wife Annie said. “When the girls decided to come in and work it and take over, they had ideas and they thought these ideas would be something their dad would probably like.”

Jon and Annie ran the Boatel until his death in 2003 while Annie also worked full time and raised their three daughters, Chris, Natalie and Laurie, with her husband. After Jon’s death, Annie, Chris and Natalie took over the establishment, slowly changing its tone and involvement with the community while keeping it heartedly the same — a local spot where you could get a cold beer or stiff drink after work while taking in live music, attending a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization or going to a friend’s wedding reception. It’s a blend of storied watering hole steeped in a shot of community involvement.

“We do something each year to make it better,” Chris said, noting that this year the Boatel worked with state and federal officials to reinforce the riverbank of the Chena River, making sure it is environmentally friendly and a suitable fish habitat per federal regulations. The family also invested in a new yard this summer, planting stronger, thicker grass in the outdoor area they expanded several years ago to include a live music stage.

That music stage debuted at the Boatel’s 40th birthday party eight years ago, which was the first year Natalie and Chris threw a party celebrating the business. (“Forty is a milestone number,” Annie said.)

It’s seen many a band in the years since, including Blackwater Railroad Company, who is performing next weekend during the Boatel’s summer solstice party, and Barcelona Boys Choir, which played this past weekend as the official kickoff to the summer music season. This weekend, the Matt Lewis Band, an Alaska favorite, is gracing the stage for the first time.

“Whenever you have a venue on a river Outside, there is always music, always entertainment,” Natalie said. “It becomes a place for the community to come together to support each other. We like to grow like the community is growing, and people have been supporting it so far. We try to make it an enjoyable experience.”

The three woman consider the Boatel a family affair, with each taking turns running various aspects of the establishment but with Natalie mostly focusing on events and entertainment and Chris focusing on accounting and the business end.

“I’ve done everything except bartend,” Annie said. “I couldn’t do it without them. I think they’re doing great,” she said of Natalie and Chris. 

Natalie also pointed out the noteworthy longevity of having a female-run business in Fairbanks, particularly a bar.

“Especially in the alcohol industry in Alaska — that’s huge,” she said.

She credited her parents with instilling her and her sister with good business acumen and good customer relations. That’s part of the reason the Boatel is a success today, Natalie said.

“Our parents instilled in us great backbone in how to run a business and how to treat people,” Natalie said. “Dad always said to us, ‘Always leave someone with their dignity.’ He never wanted arguments or negativity or bickering at the bar, and that formulates a result.” 

Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.