Wait! Start at the Bottom!
Below are a series of Blog entries that I have decided to place on this website. Please read them from the bottom-up (as normal, actually). Take your time as there is a lot here. Read it in small doses - this isn't a Netflix show...don't try to binge-read it! Feel free to comment, but do not feel obligated.
Contact me if you want to share stories about other pools!
That's A Wrap!
I do not know much about the last two pools on my list. Holiday Hills closed sometime between 1982 and 1992. I vaguely remember that pool, but know it was run by the YMCA in Plum. I remember coaching Bel-Aire in meets against Beau-Clair, so I believe they closed sometime in the mid-90s. I will not begin to speculate about what “killed” Holiday Hills or Beau-Clair. Taxes? Expenses? No Members, No Pool? Lack of Volunteers? I know, we have not gotten to that point yet.
Some of the above? All of the above? Regardless:
My intentions were quite selfish when I joined the Board. I live in the neighborhood, so I wanted to make sure we had a swim club that my kids could walk to. I wanted a place where they could play freely, safely, and make friends. I wanted a place for my wife to go and relax. I wanted my kids to learn how to swim, join the swim team, become lifeguards and work at the pool! No joke! My daughter is the Manager. My son was a Head Lifeguard last summer. But my kids are grown and ready to move on to bigger and better things. I no longer have that selfish piece to motivate me. But please do not misinterpret what I say…the most pleasure I get from the pool is standing at the concession stand deck, on a hot, busy day, and watching all of the members - adults and kids - enjoying our beautiful Gateway Heights. The more you give the more you get back. That might be best fact I can pass along.
I am a fixer, by nature. I am very competitive, but not necessarily in a sporty-way. I hate to fail. I cannot stand by and watch something fail. I need to make things right. That is a curse that was given to me at birth.
Many people have said nice things to me in regards to the turnaround of the pool. First off, thank you…but I cannot take all of the credit. I have had some incredible people help out along the way. Many past and present Board Members, and many who never wanted to join the Board, but gave just a much time, talent, energy and resources. Luck played a key role. Unfortunately, the demise of a few pools contributed to our growth. So did COVID-19…the one good thing that came from the pandemic is that it brought people back to the pools!
So, if you become the next pool President, do not take all the credit for things like these. What you can pat yourself on the back for is having the ability to rally others together and building a team of rock stars who can move mountains! Take some credit for leading strategies that placed the organization in the right place at the right time, for luck to fall in your favor, and for the pool to be there for those who were ready to find their new summer home, and for the organization to be strong enough to handle the exponential re-growth that occurred over the recent few years.
My last challenge is transitioning…
Fact: If you build something that can only survive by your hands, and falls apart when you walk away, you have failed. The mark of a great leader is someone who leads the building of something which continues to be successful once he or she is gone.
And one last note. If it turns out that Gateway Heights is not the pool for you, then please support another private swim club. We are a dying breed. We are all a pump room failure, missed tax payment, low-membership-year and/or lack-of-volunteers-dilemma away from our demise.
Please do not let there be an "RIP" next to your pool’s name.
See you at the pool!
President, GHC 2016-2022
Board Member, GHC 2013-2015
Fake Board Member, GHC 2012
Angry Pool Member, August 2004
Bonded Member, GHC 2004-Present
Member, Foxwood Swim Club, 2002-2003
Member, Eastgate Manor Swim Club, 2001
Employee, Bel-Aire Pool, 1987-1995
Member, Park Swim Club, 1978-1984
Fool for the Pool, 1970 - Present
Saving the best for last. There was a time when it seemed like everyone’s parents, including mine, were involved in planning and running all of my activities as a child. My Mom was a girl scout leader for my sister’s Troop. My Dad was the Treasurer for the pool. Every baseball game, football game, summer camp activity, swim meet, etc… my parents and my friend’s parents, were doing something to make sure that “thing” was fun and successful.
Fact: It takes a village to raise a child.
Fact: The pool is part of that village!
Fact: It takes an entire membership to run and grow the pool!
Fact: The more you give the more you get back!
Over the years, I have witnessed a change in the mentality. What once was “If we build it, they will come” turned into “If they build it, we will come.” Our expectations are that if we pay good money for something, those that are providing those goods or services are responsible for making sure it’s top notch.
News Flash! "You" are the "they" when it comes to volunteer-run organizations! "They" do not get paid to provide "you" with top-notch services. "They" do their best to make things as good as they can be...and often wish there were more of "you" to help! Get involved! Step up! Be a part of "that thing" for your kids, yourself and your community.
A small group of us work our butts off to make the pool a fun and special place. And I cannot begin to tell you how rewarding it is! I tell everyone that my favorite thing to do is to stand at the concession stand deck on a hot summer day and look out at all of the families enjoying the pool. It makes all that hard work well-worth it!!! And, I have gotten to meet so many really awesome people too (you are one of them, I am sure)!
Remember, the more you give, the more get back!
And this isn’t just with the swim club. I have seen it with church, school, sports, scouts, you name it. If you are someone who likes to volunteer for things, you undoubtedly have taken part in that discussion, “Why is it that the same 12 people seem to be running everything?”
If you have not been a part of that discussion, chances are that you are not one of those 12 people. But if you are taking time to read this...there is a really good chance you will be come one of those 12! (Bring a friend and make it 13!)
Like most of the remaining pools, GHC implemented a 4-hour volunteer obligation for each member-entity. If you cannot or choose not to volunteer, tell us to keep your check. But honestly, right now, the club does not need the $50. We would love to give it back to you. What are your talents and interests? Just four hours of your time do something to help out the pool is worth it. And you can do you! Offer up your idea and your talent. Help with the doing part and I guarantee you it will be rewarding! If you cannot physically help, heck tell us to use your check to buy paper towels and toilet paper…or paint for the pavilions…or whatever you feel you want to put your name behind! This is YOUR POOL, you are part of the Gateway Heights family.
Remember, I once proclaimed that I would never lift a finger for this darn club!
But the reality is that volunteering is as much of a key pillar to success as are membership and finances.
On August 14, 2017, Highlands Aqua Club closed its gates for good. Now, I don't want to lead you to believe that "lack of volunteering" is what killed this club. These people had hearts of gold and the will to keep their pool going forever. But this one shook me. I did not know many people there personally, but I know what they had been doing to keep their club going and growing...
This one bothered me, a lot. From my perspective, Highlands and Gateway Heights paralleled each other over the years. Both were strong organizations in nice neighborhoods with plenty of families. Both experienced a down turn in membership in the 2000s but were working extremely hard to stay alive. I never met their President, but from what I understand, he too was probably a "Fool for the Pool."
Membership, Taxes, Infrastructure and other Expenses...if one pillar falls, the rest will follow. I captured this Facebook post from June 11, 2016:
"Beautiful day at our little cement pond! I got to go see the swim team practice this morning. What an enthusiastic, talented group! (P.S. They need a few more older boys. If your kid can swim up and back they can do this - and there's cookies at the end of the meets. Tell them chicks dig swimmer dudes). Went back this afternoon to swim. The pool and the grounds are gorgeous. Thank you staff! What I really loved was all the new faces. But if we want to keep our slice of summer heaven going for years to come -- if you want the same experience I had of watching your children grow up here -- we need more members. Won't you help to spread the word?"
So...if you want the wonderful experiences that come with being a member of Gateway Heights...we need more volunteers. If you build (and maintain) it, they will (continue to) come. You are "they".
If you re-read the section on expenses, you find a list if things that also depend on volunteers.
I have failed at many, many things since I joined the Board and since I became the Pool President. Boy, did I mess a bunch of things up!!! But I learned from those mistakes! The journey was my reward. I tell people all the time, before I joined the Board, I was lucky to know how to flush a toilet. Now I fix toilets, sinks and showers. I fix pool plumbing! I got a D in 10th Grade Honors Chemistry…now I balance the chemicals for the pool! Wait a minute...maybe I should stop there…perhaps this is not the best marketing speech for the pool!
But in all seriousness, if you are you one of those "12 people", then please step up. The Board Members with whom I have partnered over the past 10-years have brought this pool from the brink of death to a revitalized operation. Much of the hard work has been done. It is time for us to hand over the reins. Here are the other roles you can consider. They all require you to be a Bondholder, but we can make that happen quickly and painlessly…let’s talk:
At the beginning of this series of Blog entries, I noted that "President" is a one-year position and that I ran unopposed all seven years. Let’s face it this role should be re-titled as “Chief Sucker”! I am not going to try to sell you on the glamour of this role. It takes a special person to take on this role…but I bet you just might be that person!
Just remember, the more you give, the more you get back. Trust me.
So, What Killed The Pools? (membership)
Growing up in the 80s, I spent most every waking summer moment at the pool (Park Swim Club, for me); swim team practice in the morning and recreational swim in the afternoon. Like most of my friends, I had a “stay at home Mom”. But the Mom’s would spend most of the day at the pool, playing cards, enjoying the sun, gossiping or whatever. Once or twice a week, Dad’s would show up after work and we’d have dinner at the pool. Swim Clubs relied on membership dues to pay the bills, staff and taxes…but for as many pools as there were back then, they all operated at capacity! 250-300 families!
Those were different times.
As the years went by, many (most) Moms started working. Other summer activities grew in popularity, whether sports, day-camps or other events that somehow ended up higher on the “to do list” than “join the pool”. The demographics started to change…everyone’s kids got older! Memberships at all of these clubs started to decline.
Gateway Heights boasted a robust membership with a multi-year waiting list throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. GHC used to only be open to Bondholders…no bond, no membership. In the early 2000s, as membership started to decline, our organization created an Associate Membership, available to non-bondholders, but at a higher fee. Our membership numbers dropped from 250+ to less than 200. Throughout the 2000s we “tweaked” the membership dues rates to the [difficult] point of offering a single rate for all families, regardless of bond ownership.
In 2015, we ended the season at 108 member-entities. A member-entity can be a family, adult plus one or an individual. At an average “rate” of $250 per membership, our revenue was $27,000. Less members also meant less guests (fees) and less profit from concessions.
Our plight was the same as all of the other pools in the area. The popularity of community pools had diminished and the demographics of our community had changed...there were simply too many pools in the area and not enough people interested in supporting them. It pains me to share this, but in speaking to other pool Presidents they had come to the same conclusions: One or two pools had to close in order for the others to survive!
There is a saying that when being chased by a wild beast in the forest, you need not be the fastest...you just don't want to be the slowest!
Gateway Heights' challenge, like the other pools', was to outlast at least one or two other pools. For those that truly know me, you understand just how difficult it was for me to wrap my head around this "strategy".
When I tell you that I care about every pool in Monroeville, I truly mean it. I dreaded the thought of any more closures…and I dread that thought today. But, that was a fact. The demographics of Monroeville just could not support six pools (eight if you include JCC and Racquet Club). And, it also was inevitable…pools would close…maybe Gateway Heights, maybe others. So we made it a point to make sure we were not the next one. We began to focus on our "curb appeal". That’s where the “more than a hole in the ground, filled with water” message came from. We needed to survive. We needed to be there when other families would be looking for a new summer pool. And we needed them to want to join our family!
After some risky personal investments from people of who I am forever appreciative, we weathered the storm. We picked up some new members, and put together a recruitment plan to bring over our friends from Foxwood Swim Club…one of my former summer homes...when they closed. There was some reluctance, but we did our best to make them feel welcome and in turn, they brought more friends. To all of my Piranha friends…thank you.
MUNICIPALITY OF MONROEVILLE
Yeah, yeah, I know…I already talked about the sale of Bel-Aire pool in another posting. But here is the deal, many of us knew this sale was inevitable about two-years prior to it actually happening. We started to strategize. One idea we had was to offer to sell Gateway Heights to Monroeville and allow them to run it as the new Municipal Pool! In fact, I contacted several Monroeville Officials, whose names I will keep private, to socialize the idea of selling GHC to the Municipality. That is when I learned that “Monroeville wanted out of the pool business.” There would be no reinvesting of the Bel-Aire funds into a new pool. A brand new pool would cost millions more, due to Allegheny County Regulations. And they understood that running a public pool was not a “revenue positive” venture.
So, the next idea was to ask for grant money. Throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s, each pool received grant money from Monroeville as well as the Commonwealth of PA. Those payments ceased a few years after Y2K and each of the pools were left to fend for ourselves. But I knew it was not fair to ask for money just for Gateway Heights, and honestly, I was pretty certain the answer would be no if I made the request only on behalf of GHC. So, I reached out to the remaining pool Presidents and we began to discuss a collaborative strategy for working with the Municipality to request grant money in exchange for sharing the responsibility of providing Monroeville’s summer camps and swim lessons programs. On June 10, 2019, I drafted a letter [link] to the Mayor, Manager and Council requesting that we meet and begin negotiating a deal that would ultimately lead to a series of formal discovery and planning sessions. The one hang up was “offering a daily rate”, but in the end, the five remain pools (Park, Garden City, Haymaker, GHC and JCC) were able to address each of the needs of the Municipality and in January 2020, we were planning the final meetings where we would hopefully finalize a five-year $15K per pool per year deal!
Then came COVID-19…I think this will be a part of the history of just about every organization of our time.
Where do I start?
Honestly, and I have said this to many people…there was a period of time that I thought 2020 was to be the RIP year for Gateway Heights, and possibly many other pools.
So, we did what we had grown accustomed to…we sat down as a Board and began to plan out a strategy.
BACK TO MEMBERSHIP
Tom Kimicata and I used a measuring wheel to determine how best to section the property and determine our “COVID capacity” using some vague and inconsistent charts found on the County and State websites. We were given very little direction, so we decided to go with the most strict interpretations to be safe. We determined our safe capacity to be around 1,200 people within the facility, though using one of the formulas, we could have made a case for 3,600 people.
We also decided to “lower” the stated By Laws cap from 250 memberships to 200. I still chuckle when I think about this, since our membership in 2019 was at a chart topping 130! But we really were not sure which way the chips would fall. And as it turned out, we ended the 2020 summer season with 200 member-entities! Swimming pools were the only game in town and the one thing you could do without a mask! In fact, swimming with a mask was unsafe!
In 2021, I was certain that member count would tail off. I attempted some gut-feel forecasting and came up with 175 as our target. Wouldn’t you know it…we ended the 2021 season at 250 and voted not to raise the cap further.
So here we are in 2022.
Once again, my genius gut-feel approach failed me. I was absolutely certain membership would decline. Regardless, we voted as a Board to extend the cap to 275, even though I was certain we would not reach 200 again. Our Treasurer, Rashko Dorosiev and I were really hoping to get to 200, but just before opening weekend membership was at 160. Maybe that 175 mark was where we would be? I was disappointed, but also reminded that I should not be greedy. When I took over as President, my goal was to bring membership to 150. That was the self-sustaining count. At that number, the club would not be “swimming in it” (pun intended) but with some off-season fundraising, 150 would allow us to continue operating in the black.
June 21, 2022 - we reached capacity and started the waiting list. 275 “member entities”. Our costs have certainly increased, so this is a welcome surprise!
The challenge now is to make everyone feel that they are truly a part of the Gateway Heights family. GHC is more than a pool. It is more than a hole in the ground filled with water. GHC is a place for you to bring your kids to have fun and relax, in a safe environment. It is a place to make lifelong friendships. It’s a trip back in time.
The other pools in the area seem to be doing well also. That makes me happy. We have a swim team, and in order to keep that a fun activity, there must be other pools in the area to complete with and against us. Our kids need to learn how to blend fun with competition. They need to learn how to be the best individual swimmer, and that when they beat their previous best time, they are a winner! Swimming is a unique sport where teamwork is important, but personal accomplishments mean everything. I was not a fast swimmer, and in fact…I was pretty slow. But I loved the sport and went on to become a pretty decent coach!
The moral of this part of the story is that membership is another key pillar to the success of the swim club.
Lots of members = nice pool. No members = no pool. But to quote my good friend, fellow Board Member and GHC Membership Director, Reid Segar…do not get greedy! Too many members can ruin the fun. Members come to relax. They want their space. They do not want to feel over-crowded in their summer home away from home.
INFRASTRUCTURE AND EXPENSES
Well, we got through “taxes” without it seeming like a graduate-level Accounting class! Bear with me as I attempt to make this section just as readable.
Fact: When you own your property, you own all of the problems!
Pools hold water...lots of it. And water, arguably, can be one of the most destructive forces in nature.
Pools are made of cement. Cement cracks, breaks and leaks. Outdoor pools in Western Pennsylvania do not exactly weather graciously! Over the past seven seasons, GHC has spent about $3,000 each year in paint, cement, caulking and related supplies to patch, repair and paint the pool. In the leaner years, the money for this pre-season preparation was donated. For the past four seasons, the club was able to afford to foot the bill as part of our budget!
Patching and painting the pool (especially with the deep royal blue color we use at GHC) has two key benefits:
Pumps and filtration systems are mechanical. And just like this Pool President, these systems are over 50-years old. They break, they fail, they make strange noises, they are high maintenance, and they certainly aren’t cheap…again, just like this Pool President. Most private pools will tell you that they are one “pump-room failure away from closing…for the season, and possibly for good. And for a long time, GHC was in the same position. It’s fair to say we are not quite out of that area of the woods yet, but over the past several years, we have strategically invested in the maintenance and repairs needed to keep us going.
A new pump (impeller) will be needed in the next few years at a cost of around $10K. But it is important to keep an eye on “the little things” like replacing the rusty metal pipes with PVC pipes when possible and replacing rusted/corroded bolts with new stainless bolts. There are lots of bolts in a pump-room…typically 8 per fitting, and usually 30+ fittings. A bolt kit runs about $250…you do the math.
10-acres of land…beautiful property, if I say so myself, requires landscaping and upkeep. Dead trees either fall or need to be cut down. Fallen trees need to be cut up. Grass needs to be cut. Bushes need to be trimmed. You get the idea. Trees are expensive to cut down, and dangerous for volunteers to do. As far as grass cutting goes, our insurance company prefers that we use a professional, bonded landscaper to cut the grass instead of Lifeguards and volunteers who might find themselves missing a toe or two!
Fortunately, our Amusement Park does not have any rides to maintain, but we do have ladders, lifeguard stands, a diving board, dive stands, fencing, pavilions, play ground equipment, a shed, picnic tables and chairs! Whew, did I forget anything?
2,500 square feet of Lodge space. Well, during one of our re-assessment hearings, I did invite the hearing officer to our “Lodge” free of charge, to host a party of however many friends he could actually fit in our “Lodge”…he was not amused (pun intended). So our building boasts two restrooms, each with a few toilets, sinks and a working shower. It also houses our concession stand complete with a handful of refrigerators and freezers, some microwaves, a bunch of shelves and a few other gadgets that allow us to sell “fun food” to our members and guests, while staying compliant with the Health Department regulations.
Have I mentioned that the expense to pave a parking lot the size of GHC rivals that of the cost of a few cars to park on it?
Every pool must assess and prioritize its maintenance needs. Safety is the #1 concern. If something is broken and is a safety risk, we must fix it…or close (until it is fixed).
Fact: Allegheny County Health Department has the strictest regulations for public bathing places in the country.
Man, I really wanted to cite that last fact, but I could not find anything online that actually said that. However, in my Certified Pool Operator (CPO) courses, my instructors have echoed this sentiment. I have heard it from the American Red Cross. I have heard it from many other pool operators. So it must be fact, right? Regardless, Allegheny County does set the bar high for safety for swimming pools and food service…and that is a good thing. It can also be an expensive thing. That’s not a complaint…just a thing. So County and State Regulations and Inspections are #2, and since they go hand-in-hand with safety, I have no problem putting them in second place. If the two were a horse race, it would be photo-finish.
We are a membership pool. We exist to serve our members. So, things that are broken that create an inconvenience to our members are #3. That’s tough to argue.
Also, we want our pool to look appealing, so things that are eye-sores are #4 on the priority list.
Finally, “nice to haves” and “luxury items” can be given a #5 slot, but most pools have very little, if any, “disposable income” to spend that far down the list.
In a Trib Live article from July 21, 2011 [link], they reference Penn Aqua, which used to exist on Lynnwood Drive in Penn Hills, I pulled the following quotes:
The Penn Aqua Club pool's condition today is a far cry from its heyday, said former board member George Steffey of Leetsdale.
Penn Hills Principal Planner Chris Blackwell said private swim clubs whose properties fall into disrepair face an uphill battle, financially.
"When you have a property that starts deteriorating, you can reach a point where, even if you get a new organization in there, you have to do demolition work and it can get very costly," he said.
In other words, it is extremely important to make sure that things do not deteriorate beyond disrepair!
You will notice that snuck “insurance” into the landscaping rant above. Assuming the other clubs are like GHC, pools do not have just one policy, rather something like seven different policies, each one covering something different but specific to operating a pool. As long as private pools remain private, they have an opportunity to manage risk better than public pools. With the ability to manage risk, the insurance premiums are a bit more manageable. However, many underwriters are exiting the swimming pool space, making it tougher to find good policies at affordable rates. Having a good broker, operating a safe environment, maintaining the property and passing inspections are all critical elements. Falling behind on loans and taxes can hurt the organization’s ability to obtain a good policy at an affordable rate. So, you can see how everything starts to weave together, making it important to not focus on just one thing!
Utilities such as water, electricity and gas also contribute to expenses. These expenses tend to be exponentially higher in the summer months, for obvious reasons, and manageable in the offseason. Having a strong membership and a good fundraising program helps to keep the bills paid all-year round. Water and electricity are a must. At GHC we have an electric water heater in our Lodge. Our Amusement Park, I mean pool is not heated…yet. We had a heater many years ago, but as noted above…old mechanical things break easily. And when it broke, the club was not in a position to invest in a new heating system for the pool. Brand new, a pool heater would cost $15K-20K, plus the cost to run it (propane or natural gas).
For the past few years, we have been looking for an affordable pool heater in good working condition. The pool really only needs a heater in the first and last few weeks of the season. The sun tends to do its job between mid-June and mid-August. This has been the most popular request from our members (and prospective members) in my seven years as president).
But the bigger question is, “Where does a pool heater fall on the priority list?” I do not believe there is an argument to include it in either top two categories. So, where in the #3, #4 and #5 range should it land? That would be a great debate for the politicians…but wait, we do not discuss politics at the pool…more to come on that topic!
Chemicals…to be honest, I really do not feel like writing a long paragraph on chemicals. But let’s just say, chlorine and the various chemicals required to keep our water crystal clear and bacteria free are expensive. In fact, the cost of chemicals has doubled and will approach triple from just 5-years ago. In the famous words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Finally, while GHC and most other pools are run by volunteers (more on that later), lifeguards generally do not work for free. This may be the next pain point that causes more swim clubs to close. While I mentioned above that we do not discuss politics at the pool, it is important for each swim club to monitor what is happening with wages. Mandatory minimum wage in the Commonwealth of PA (as of this writing) is $7.25 per hour - the same as the Federal Minimum Wage. The lifeguards that work at our private community pools are seasonal and therefore not seeking a “living wage” as those hired into full-time, year-round jobs. With that noted, our lifeguards are required to be certified, which carries a cost to them. Lifeguard shortages are becoming a serious concern.
Understanding that raising the mandatory minimum wage to $15 per hour, as our Governor hopes to do, will double payroll expenses for some pools, other actions will be necessary to afford this increase: shortened operating hours, higher membership fees, more fundraisers or even seeking other sources of revenue. Boy, I really wish we could rent out our Lodge! In recent years, GHC has attempted to stay competitive, offering slightly higher minimum wages to our senior and head lifeguards. For the 2022 season, we increased the wage for a part-time staff lifeguard to $10 per hour, while offering our concession workers (formerly volunteers only) $8 per hour. As long as memberships are strong and we have a good year-round fundraising program, this too should be manageable.
Determining the future increase in cost of a pool membership will need to be done with a mixture of art and science. In my past experiences, this is an area that many pools did not take care in doing. A reasonable and justifiable increase in the cost of the service we provide to our members should be balanced with an equal increase in the service provided. As nice of a facility and organization we offer, everyone still has a threshold for spending.
So, What Killed The Pools? (taxes)
Gateway Heights operates as a 501(c)7 non-profit organization…not a 501(c)3. Yes…there is a big difference between that 7 and 3! But, do not fret, I will not go down the rabbit hole of explaining the various non-profit tax exemption statuses. But I will share these tidbits:
Note: Park Swim Club and Garden City Swim Club are 501(c)3 organizations. They do not own their land, rather allowed them to be acquired by the Municipality of Monroeville and leased back for 99 years. They do not pay property taxes. There are pros and cons to this, which I do not discuss in this Blog post.
I am almost certain that every pool MUST have had a roller coaster on their property back in the day, right? And of course, each pool likely rented out their lodge for weddings and reunions in the off-season? How else could they have possibly raised the money needed to pay property taxes? OK, I must confess, this bit of information is neither cited-fact nor “educated speculation”…it is pure cynicism.
Fact: Gateway Heights pays over $10K in property taxes across Local, County, State and School District each year. As noted above, it costs about $60K per year to run the organization and facility. We are truly a non-profit, break-even operation, so roughly 18% of our annual revenue/expenses go to property taxes.
Anyway, many of the clubs listed above fell behind in taxes. As membership declined, so did revenue. Some bills must be paid ASAP…some, like taxes, can be deferred with penalties. Many clubs got so far behind with their taxes, they were unable to recover.
Built in 1961, Eastmont Swim Club closed after the 1994 season. In the 1950s, the Eastmont community was booming with young families and children. The entire community was on board to build the pool. 200 families purchased $300 bonds to finance the construction. The pool was a booming success in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Here is a short excerpt from one of the articles that I read about Eastmont Swim Club. I encourage you to click on the hyperlinked text and read more.
After the '60s waned, Phil Dodge, a former part-time township police officer, took over the reins of the volunteer board of directors in 1974. Dodge was the first to approach township commissioners - unsuccessfully about removing the swim club from the tax rolls. Dodge said the club might have been able to survive without the tax burden. ''We did not try to make a profit as much as we were trying to just break even,'' says Dodge. ''We were supplying something to the community.''
After 34-years of operation, the pool was drowning in unpaid taxes. At the time the property was to be sold or repurposed, over $70K in unpaid taxes had accrued.
In 2015, Gateway Heights found ourselves 2-years behind in property taxes, with a budget that wasn’t guaranteed to support paying the next year’s taxes. The organization had accrued nearly $9,000 in unpaid taxes. One of my first initiatives as President of GHC was to make it a priority to pay-off our back taxes. And quite honestly only way to do this quickly was to beg for money. I needed to convince a handful of people to make an investment in Gateway Heights. And the only way to convince someone to make a risky investment, was to make part of it myself.
The construction of Gateway Heights Swim Club, was originally financed with bond-money, just like Eastmont. Our By Laws only permitted each member to hold one bond, one vote. We had some people willing to “donate” to the club but were concerned that the club might just be beyond the point of return. So we came up with a plan to “guarantee” donations. We reworked the By Laws (approved by the Bondholders at the Annual Membership Meeting on November 1, 2015) to allow the purchase of up to 10 stock certificates (bonds) with Board approval, along with the condition that no one member-family may have more than the equivalent of one vote, regardless of the number of shares they hold.
Basically, if the pool were to not make it, we all were confident that the land could be sold for a price high enough to buy back all outstanding bonds, so in theory, we could “guarantee donations.” In reality, they were not really donations, but rather shares of stock purchases.
Fact: When you find yourself drowning, you need to stop thrashing…just find a way to float until help arrives. (And don’t just stand there…go get help!)
Now, I believe in “leading by example,” so together with my wife, we purchased nine additional bonds. The club was able to sell multiple bonds to a few others as well and with this approach we raised the money needed to pay off our back-taxes and bring the organization "out of the red!”
Ironically, this decision came back to haunt me for awhile...as two weeks after buying our additional bonds, I was laid-off from my job! Fool for the pool? Or, maybe just a fool? Again, I will not get side-tracked with personal stories, but I was given the following advice by one of our Past Presidents, Tom Kimicata, who is strong in his Faith. He told me the following:
Fact: The more you give, the more you get back.
And he was right…and I will leave it at that from a personal note.
But I will share with you that over the past three years of ending the season "in the black", Gateway Heights Club, Inc. has also started giving back, having held fundraisers for OTHER organizations! In 2019-2020, we raised $1,000 for Foundation for Angelman Syndrome Therapy (F.A.S.T.) and in 2021-2022, we raised an additional $1,000 for the Nicholas Schrank Scholarship Fund.
We are trying to give back when and where we can.
Taxes and finances in general, are one of the main pillars of keeping the organization going and growing.
Two of the pools listed here were “sold” to the PA Turnpike Commission, each for around $1M. Bel-Aire had been run by the Municipality of Monroeville for over 40 years. The land was purchased in 1975 and the pool was constructed in 1978. While they offered memberships, ran a swim team and swim lessons, like every other pool, they were also open to the public. Taxpayer funded, they did not rely on volunteers or membership dues to operate from year to year.
I was a lifeguard, swim instructor and swim team coach at Bel-Aire in the mid-90s. It was a fun place to be. Like the other pools in the area, we were thriving each summer. We had a solid membership base, supplemented with “daily-rate” admittance. These were my college years, and while I worked there in the summer, I took the opportunity to become a PA Certified Pool Operator as well as an American Red Cross Instructor for Lifeguarding, First-Aid and CPR. With an engineering mind, I loved learning the mechanics of swimming and the mechanics of pool operations. But with a kid-like heart and mind, I loved interacting with the people. I loved working with the kids. I learned how to “deal” with parents…though I loved most of them too. I made many long-lasting friendships during my time at this pool.
One can debate the decision to close and sell Bel-Aire. The pool operated at a deficit year after year. In 2010, the Municipality considered closing the pool in an effort to reduce the 2011 Budget. Ultimately, that plan was nixed. And in 2019, it’s final season of operations, Bel-Aire was budgeted to receive $52,100 in revenue and expected to have $87,240 in expenditures. [cited-source]
These figures closely align with GHC in 2019, with expenses exceeding $60K for the year revenue coming in as follows:
Oh by the way, you’ll notice that Bel-Aire’s expenses were much higher than GHC’s. As a public pool, Bel-Aire had additional mandates for ADA and other regulations from which as private pools built in the 1960s, Gateway Heights and the others were exempt (grandfathered). Plus, insurance policies are much more expensive for public pools (i.e. those that offer a “daily rate”) than membership-only organizations.
The other pool that was purchased by the PA Turnpike Commission was Plum Aqua. Honestly, I have no first-hand knowledge of the state of affairs at that pool during any part of their history, nor their financials. But through my observations and gut-feel, I believe they were right in-line with all the others. Basically, until recently, the cost to run a private, community pool in the eastern suburbs was about $60K per year, but that is ONLY if there were no repairs to the pump, filter, building, parking lot, etc. I swam there a few times and I coached (my teams) at meets held at that pool several times. It was a very nice facility, with friendly and welcoming people.
But, $1M today is not enough to build a new community pool. Perhaps an apartment-sized pool could be built for that price (I guess), but not one the size of either Bel-Aire or Plum Aqua.
These two pools were the most recent in history to close.
Good news for GHC…it does not appear that the PATC plans to expand through the Ramsey and Monroe Heights plans in the foreseeable future…so hopefully we will continue to dodge the "eminent domain" bullet.
The rest, unfortunately, hits a little closer to home…er, pool.
(See next entry).
Those That Have Come And Gone
At least 65 Pennsylvania pools have closed since 2009. [cited] Let’s take a look at nine of them formerly located in or around the Monroeville area:
Fact: Because I am a bit lazy when it comes to typing, wherever you see “GHC,” that refers to Gateway Heights Club, Inc., the legal incorporated name for Gateway Heights Swim Club.
Throughout the rest of the article, I will share some tidbits of information about each of these pools, where I can. It is really important to recognize that each of these pools were in high demand at one point or another in their history. They were great places to swim in the summer time. Each of them ran a swim team in the Eastern Swim Association (ESA), the league in which the GH Gators participate. All of them are gone now. It can happen so quickly and easily.
A FOOL FOR THE POOL
My family and I joined Gateway Heights Swim Club in the summer of 2004. At the end of that summer, the Board was meeting under one of the pavilions. As a new bondholder and member, I decided to walk over and observe. I had been involved with pools since I was eight years old. With two little ones of my own, I wanted to get involved with my new swim club. Within 10 minutes (or less) of my standing off to the side, not saying a word, one of the Board Members, who shall remain nameless, approached me and informed me that I was not permitted to listen in. I explained that I was in fact a Bondholder, but this person sternly told me that the meeting was for Board Members only. Needless to say, I was angry. They were meeting right there, out in the open, at the pool on a nice August day. I was a Bondholder…an “owner” of this club. And I was interested in getting involved. Yet…they turned me away!?!?
Well, I stormed back to my wife and kids, promptly proclaiming, “That’s it! I am NEVER lifting a finger for this place!” And, the rest is history…or maybe water under the bridge…or maybe water that still leaks into the pump room to this day…or maybe...
In 2012, I offered to assist the Board of Directors with the club’s website. While not an official Board member, I was invited to attend some Board Meetings and began to really see the direction the pool was headed. I self-nominated for an open Director role and joined the Board in 2013. In 2016, I ran unopposed for the one-year position of President of Gateway Heights Club, Inc. Quite interestingly, I have run unopposed every year since, but we will get back to that a little later.
In one of the first communications to the membership, I made the following statements:
ABOUT THIS BLOG
As my tenure as President of Gateway Heights comes to an end, I have been thinking of ways that I could share my thoughts and insights with those who might be interested in continuing to protect the legacy of Gateway Heights and keeping it going and growing!
There is a lot to share, so I decided that posting bits and pieces at a time might be the best way to share what is on my mind. I truly hope that some of you will read these entries and find them interesting. I will try to spread some humor and anecdotal stories throughout, to make reading them fun and educational.
Many of my blog posts will be pulled from a “working document,” so if you have any insights to add on a related topic, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to make modifications as necessary.
In the information I share, I refer to several swim clubs that no longer exist, but at one time were thriving organizations. If you and/or your family grew up in the Eastern Suburbs of Pittsburgh, some of this will be familiar to you…especially if you grew up a “pool rat” like me. But even if neither are true, you do not need to know the names of the clubs I list below to understand their journey and their fate.
This blog series intends to provide you with a bit of history of “the pools that are no longer”. It also intends to share some insights into what caused the demise of these neighborhood gems. And finally, its intent is to provide some insight into the journey of Gateway Heights from a thriving community swim club, to the brink of closure, to what now seems to be a revitalization! I share with you the hidden dangers which are lurking but more importantly, the obvious risks which are out in the open for all of us to see.
As I close out this introduction, let me share some basic facts about Gateway Heights Club, Inc. The pool sits on a 10-acre property and was built in 1964. Construction was financed by selling $300 bonds. Over the years, the value of a bond increased to $450. For many decades, only bondholders could purchase a seasonal membership. A multi-year waiting list existed. Pool membership was a steady 250-300 member-entities each summer, until the 1990s and 2000s.
In 2015, membership dipped to 108 member-entities. The organization owed two-years of back-taxes. The pool was operating deep into the red. The club was at a cross-roads and the outcome was not looking good.
Gateway Heights has experienced a turnaround that no one, including me, could have predicted. With 275 member-entities (est. 935 individuals), we are on the right track. But we cannot become complacent. Our history and the histories of other pools like GHC are important to the long-term strategies and plans for keeping this club alive and growing.