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Cherry Hill swim clubs treading water this season

The Gillooly family of Cherry Hill has made tough budget decisions to save money this summer. That extra week at the Shore? Cut. A $685 membership to the private Barclay Farm swim club? Stays.

The Gillooly family of Cherry Hill has made tough budget decisions to save money this summer. That extra week at the Shore? Cut. A $685 membership to the private Barclay Farm swim club? Stays.

"When you parse that out over the whole summer, it's so cheap for all of us," said Anne Gillooly.

Other families are choosing differently. Total members in at least eight of the 13 clubs in Cherry Hill, including Barclay Farm, fell last year, according to the Cherry Hill Association of Pools. Some say dues are slow in coming this season. That has left clubs scrambling to find ways to make ends meet before Memorial Day weekend, when most kick off the season.

Some pool leaders said that families had left citing financial reasons, and that trouble in the housing market had slowed neighborhood turnover and the rate at which young families with kids replace older ones.

Once one of the town's largest clubs, Woodcrest has dropped from 600 member families to about 350 in the last three years. Fifty families left last year, and dues are coming slower than usual this season, president Jim Thompson said.

Membership for a family of five at Woodcrest costs $615, plus a $110 assessment to help cover the loan on a $500,000 pool installed five years ago. As memberships drop, Thompson is asking those remaining to help save money by reseeding the lawn and doing other upkeep that contractors once did. His board decided against cutting back pool hours, he said.

"We're trying not to have our current members give up," he said.

Like a number of South Jersey communities, Cherry Hill has no municipal pools. The swim clubs were created in the 1950s and 1960s, when the township was growing and pools were a part of developers' blueprints for a premier neighborhood. Then, they were a refuge for stay-at-home moms, kids in tow, who spent afternoons poolside or on the tennis courts.

Today they are a place where new families get to know their neighbors and kids hone skills as competitive swimmers and divers.

"The clubs are really part of the character of our community," said Dan Keashen, spokesman for Mayor Bernie Platt.

The town council has identified helping the pools as a priority this year, though help so far has come as advice instead of money. Platt has organized meetings with pool leaders to brainstorm money-saving ideas, such as refinancing debt or buying pool chemicals as a group.

In the meantime, the clubs are finding their own ways.

Barclay Farm, where membership is down from 235 families in the mid-1990s to a little more than 100 now, is installing solar panels. President Gerry Aiken said he's hoping to reduce $7,500 in summer electric bills.

Aiken has asked people at Barclay, which competes for members with the larger, more stable Covered Bridge club in the same neighborhood, to donate food to be sold at the snack bar. The club is renting garden plots to members and nonmembers. And it is offering half-off memberships this year to attract new families.

Not every club is struggling.

Wedgewood in Haddonfield, one of three outside clubs that belong to the 16-member Cherry Hill Association of Pools, is full. The club, which does not publish its dues, has 475 member families and 180 on a waiting list.

Vice president Gary Carpenter said the lack of competition in the borough helps - the club accepts only Haddonfield residents - but more important is the quality of the club's swim program, which often ranks among the top in the tri-country region.

"The ones that are doing the best [financially] are the ones that are competitive from a swimming standpoint," Carpenter said.

The Haddontowne club in Cherry Hill caught a windfall last year when it was asked to help host the annual Cherry Bowl swim meet for the second time in three years. Hosts can earn up to $40,000 in sponsorships and advertising sales, and that's helped carry the club through needed capital improvements, said board member Bob Errichetti.

"We're in good shape right now," Errichetti said. "Next year might be a different story."