This was almost the summer when the Saratoga Pool closed for good.
The Springfield neighborhood pool, serving more than 1,200 homes in the community just off Rolling Road, had been deteriorating for years. The pool walls were cracking. The pipes and filters were faltering. The health department had even closed the pool several times last year because the water had a tendency to turn green. Some families were calling it the Saratoga Pond.
But the neighbors rallied, led by a dynamo named Linda Burke. They formed a new corporation to buy the pool from Saratoga's developer, raised $60,000 in membership fees in the dead of winter to cover operating costs, then persuaded NationsBank to make an unusual $60,000 loan to pay for the necessary repairs. All within five months.
Now the Saratoga Pool sparkles. New paint, new furniture, new filters and clean water were just some of the features unveiled at a grand reopening over Memorial Day weekend, and Fairfax County officials say they hope Saratoga's rejuvenation can be a model for other communities that want to resuscitate aging fixtures in their neighborhoods.
"That's a tremendous success story," said Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield). "Linda [Burke] deserves the credit." McConnell said she and her staff hope to devise a program through which county housing and development officials can assist neighborhood activists with funding and administrative guidance on similar projects.
For five years, various homeowner groups around Saratoga had tried to figure out a way to save the pool, built in 1976. As the pool's quality declined, so did its membership, down to about 200 families last year.
"I had people tell me, 'We're not coming back,' " Burke said. But the mother of three refused to give up. At a community meeting in January, she unveiled a proposal to form a private company, called the Saratoga Recreation Group, which would buy the pool from the developer for $1.
But then there was the question of repairing the pool, at an estimated cost of $65,000. Burke had the idea of approaching NationsBank, but when she did, the bank pointed out that her group, even after it bought the pool, had no real collateral for the loan. A community pool isn't an easily bought-and-sold asset. The bank turned her down.
So Burke's group set out to drum up a huge pool of savings through a six-week membership drive. "We had our 'mothers' brigade' out in the snow, handing out fliers, calling people on their lists," Burke said. As a sales pitch, the group lowered membership fees to between $100 and $150 a family, from an annual dues of $250 plus a one-time $500 bond.
By the end of March, the "mothers' brigade" had succeeded: More than 400 families signed on, raising more than $60,000, to cover the costs of maintenance and lifeguards for the summer. But the pool still needed $60,000 for repairs.
"She came back and said, 'Look, I've raised the [membership] money,' " recalled Cyril Maire, vice president of business banking for NationsBank, when Burke returned to his office for a second shot at the loan. "She was always very positive."
Maire decided to take Saratoga's case to the bank's loan underwriters. He told them there were drawbacks--the community's support for the pool could falter, causing the Saratoga group to default on the loan. But Maire also pointed out: "This dynamo has the whole community behind her. It seems like it's the right thing to do for the community."
In April, the bank approved the loan. McConnell's office, particularly aide Bernie Cieplak, helped navigate through the county's zoning regulations and successfully transferred ownership of the pool to the community group.
Then Burke, with the help of NV Pools, her mothers' brigade and a corps of volunteer fathers doing painting and carpentry, began overhauling the pool. Contractors were hired to replace the tiles around the pool, repair the bottom and sides, sandblast the pipes and replace the filters. A new refreshment stand was installed, as were two canopies near the baby pool and dozens of new chairs, tables and umbrellas around the S-shaped 25-meter main pool.
Sitting by the pool under a bright sun recently, Burke said she stayed optimistic last winter about the prospects of a happy ending, even after the bank turned her down and the membership drive had raised only half its goal with one week left. "It was a real push and shove," she said. "People kept saying, 'What if it doesn't work?' I'd say, 'We're not going to talk about that; it's going to work.' "
But the job is far from over. The Saratoga group must maintain a solid core of volunteers, including a board of directors, and raise funds annually not only for memberships but also for repairs and loan payments.
"I'm optimistic that they'll get the support every year," said Jim Fitzpatrick, president of the Saratoga Community Association, the group of single-family homeowners. "We had a lot of people that didn't recognize the importance of a pool. But many will when they go to sell their properties."
CAPTION: Pool manager Walt Bagwell, left, reviews the facility's conditions with Linda Burke, who was the driving force behind renovation of the Saratoga Pool in Springfield.