Swim Clubs Struggle to Stay Afloat

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Beneath the sparkling-blue surface of scores of the region's neighborhood swim clubs is a troubling new reality: Many of them are crumbling physically and financially.

At pools built 40, 50 or 60 years ago, bath houses are moldering. Pumps do not work. A sinkhole threatens the entire parking lot of one club in Fairfax County. And at the same time that many of these clubs need new people and their money, pool memberships are plummeting.

In many neighborhoods, older families no longer have young children. Two-career families have no time. And some immigrant families are less inclined to join because they are new to the area or because the pool does not hold the same cultural value for them as it does for generations of suburban Americans.

As a result, dozens of private clubs across the area are at risk of closing. Some already have, and others are teetering. Still others have figured out how to survive by reaching out to newcomers and immigrant communities or leasing land for cellphone towers or fast-food restaurants. The choice is simple, many pool officials say: If the clubs don't change, those icons of Washington's once-thriving middle-class suburbs won't survive.

Privately owned, nonprofit pool clubs have long been a part of the suburban culture. For decades, families in the region's bedroom communities have joined local swim clubs, spending their summer days competing in swim and dive meets and meeting friends and neighbors. Today, about 80 such clubs exist in Fairfax and about 50 in Montgomery County. These numbers do not include apartment complexes or community pools controlled by homeowner associations.

"When I was a kid, there was nothing for kids to do in the summer except perhaps Little League, and maybe if there was a swimming pool, your parents might join it," said Bill Waller, facilities director of Kemp Mill Pool in Wheaton. "Now, kids have so many things to choose from. You also have many more parents who both have to work, so it's not quite as easy to have the 'Leave It to Beaver' stay-at-home mom who takes the kids to the pool for the day."

At its pinnacle, 340 families belonged to Kemp Mill, Waller said. Today, 205 families are members, and the pool is "treading water," he said. Annual dues, about $450, cover operating expenses, but there are no funds to put aside for long-term improvements. The pool needs a new $50,000 surface, or white coat. And recently, Waller dismantled stalls, showers and toilets from the old Our Lady of Good Counsel High School when it was being demolished "because I couldn't afford to redo the bathrooms, and mine were falling apart."

At the North Springfield Swim Club in Fairfax, the pool was quiet on a recent weekday, nestled in a grove of mature trees at the end of a short cul-de-sac and mottled with afternoon sunlight. The club's president, Bill Nelson, said pool membership has dwindled so much that in some years it has had trouble filling the age groups on the swim teams.

The surrounding neighborhood has a large immigrant population, but reaching out to them has been a challenge. Lilly Arrate, a pool member who moved to the United States 18 years ago, said some of her friends are newcomers for whom the $375 annual fee is too high.

Chatting at a pool picnic table under the shade of a giant oak tree, a friend of Arrate's added that some Latinos are intimidated by the language and culture barriers and, as a result, shy from neighborhood pools. Arrate said she and her three sons come to the pool nearly every day in summer. "I love it here," she said.

Many pools continue to thrive in such affluent inner enclaves as North Arlington, McLean and Bethesda, where initiation fees exceed $1,000 and waiting lists stretch four years or more. Farther afield, in neighborhoods with more new immigrants and an older population, the story mirrors that of Kemp Mill: In Springfield and Burke, Bowie and Rockville, private swim clubs have fallen into disrepair and, having lost many members over the past decade or two, cannot pay for the new plumbing, pumps, bath houses or decks they so desperately need.

In some cases, pools have gone under. In the Kings Park and Kings Park West neighborhoods along Braddock Road in central Fairfax, two clubs have closed just in the past two years: Royal and Kings West.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company