Community pools struggle to stay afloat

May 25, 2011

With pools around Fairfax County scheduled to open this weekend, members of many community pool boards are keeping their fingers crossed that enough people become members to help the facilities make ends meet.

As recently as a decade ago, it was commonplace for community pools in central Fairfax County to have long waiting lists for new members, officials said.

Although pools in some areas of the county still are advertising year-long waiting lists for membership on their Web sites, swim club leaders in other neighborhoods — such as Fairfax and Springfield — say they have seen a slow decline during the past decade, requiring swim clubs to get creative about attracting new members to keep funding.

Several factors have led to a decline in memberships at many community pools, Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) and others said. Struggling community pools have been a concern in Cook’s district for five years or so, he said.

When older county neighborhoods were built in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, there were fewer dual-income households, Cook said. Now, about 73 percent of working-age adults in the county work, according to the U.S. Census. That means there often is no one home to take youths to the pool on weekdays, Cook said. There also is more competition for time and entertainment dollars, from youth sports to video games.

“Anytime we’ve talked to someone who was giving up their membership, it wasn’t because they didn’t like the pool. It was because they were just too busy,” said Bob Fischer, board president of the Commonwealth Swim & Tennis Club in Fairfax.

Last fall, Cook brought pool board members in his district together to share best practices and success stories, something he plans to continue.

Community pools are trying a variety of ways to boost membership, such as offering referral bonuses to members who get their neighbors to join and reaching out beyond their traditional neighborhood boundaries to bring in new members. Sideburn Run Recreation Association in Fairfax is trying to strike a deal with nearby George Mason University to allow its faculty and staff members to join, board member Scott Flory said.

Orange Hunt Swim Club in Springfield pursued deals with telecommunications companies to earn revenue from leasing space for a cellphone tower. Last year, Orange Hunt Swim Club had about 300 members; it has a 500-member capacity.

The Commonwealth Swim & Tennis Club tries to make the pool a center of community life, Fischer said. It hosts Friday potlucks, offers live music and holds other events. “The big thing for us is to promote the pool as a family destination,” he said.

Still, membership at Commonwealth is about 200, half the 400 members it had during its heyday in the 1980s, he said.

Declining memberships can leave some pools without sufficient funds for major repairs, Cook said. Two pools in the Kings Park area closed in recent years when they were unable to pay for large maintenance projects. Royal Pool closed in 2006 and has since been incorporated into the Kings Park park. The former Kings West Pool, on Tapestry Drive in Fairfax, has sat abandoned since 2005.

“What happened with some pools is that when they were new, they didn’t set aside money for a capital reserve,” Cook said. “When the capital needs started coming in, there wasn’t money to pay for them.”

That concern is what motivated Orange Hunt to strike a deal with T-Mobile, board President Dave Sheridan said, because it wants the financial cushion the lease revenue would provide — the equivalent of 50 to 100 memberships, depending on the number of antennas on the tower. A family membership is $365. The pool’s application for a cellphone tower permit remains in limbo.

“We have a nest egg. It’s very small. We can’t afford a big hit on a mechanical failure,” Sheridan said. “It’s a really tenuous balancing act.”

“These community pools are the place where people go when they want to interact with their community,” Fischer said. “When summer starts again, it’s a time to reconnect.”

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