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.
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