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In South Jersey, a struggle to keep swim clubs going

Sun and water go hand in hand, and for many South Jersey families summer is all about waves, sand, and a boardwalk.

"We've been in difficulty for the past 10 years," says Sharon Brandley, president of the Oaklyn Swim Club, with her sons Shawn and Ryan.
"We've been in difficulty for the past 10 years," says Sharon Brandley, president of the Oaklyn Swim Club, with her sons Shawn and Ryan.Read more

Sun and water go hand in hand, and for many South Jersey families summer is all about waves, sand, and a boardwalk.

But for thousands the cool wet stuff has a whiff of chlorine - and it's just around the corner, at a neighborhood swim club.

Memorial Day weekend marks the start of pool season for most of the 45 clubs dotting Gloucester, Camden and Burlington Counties, nearly all of them nonprofit associations where preparations are already under way.

At clubs with such names as Sunnybrook, Pomona, Pheasant Run and Barclay Farm, members can be found this weekend and next scraping the hot dog grills, repainting the race lane markers, and setting up umbrellas and chaises.

"We'll be replacing screens, painting the intermediate pool and baby pool, manicuring the lawn," said Jack Whalen, president of Stratford Swim Club, who expects 30 adults doing chores this weekend.

Yet for all their volunteer spirit, many of these private community centers are in hard times.

"It's a yearly struggle for the majority of clubs to meet operating costs," says Tim O'Connor, president of the 17-member Cherry Hill Association of Pools (CHAP). "Just breaking even is the goal for many."

Whalen agrees. Stratford Swim Club is adding Italian food to its menu this year, renegotiating its insurance, asking the fire department to fill the pools, replacing its $4,000 lawn service with a sit-down mower driven by off-duty lifeguards, and "cutting every other expense we can think of," he said.

No pool club in the three counties is struggling, however, like Oaklyn Swim Club.

"We've been in difficulty for the past 10 years," president Sharon Brandley said last week. "We'd always have enough to run the pool but it was always a scramble to make repairs and pay the taxes."

Just a half-acre of water and concrete wrapped in chain-link, it has been the scene of childhood memories since 1961. "I think my favorite [memory] is of my grandmother teaching me to swim when I was about 7," said Brandley, a schoolteacher and lifelong member with two young sons of her own.

Two years ago, however, the club, which numbers about 150 households, could not meet its $8,000 tax bill.

With interest and penalties climbing, and its antiquated filter system failing, the board asked the borough for more time to pay its taxes and eliminated its $400 initiation fee in hopes of wooing new members.

Although its $300 annual dues for a family of four are less than half what many other clubs charge, the lure was not enough to turn the tide. By last year's end Oaklyn could not even pay some of its contractors, let alone erase a tax bill that had swollen to $30,000 with interest and penalties.

And so, in December, its board voted to dissolve the association and let ownership go to tax sale.

That should have been the end of Oaklyn Swim Club.

But in a struggling blue-collar community of 4,000 with few amenities, "we see it as a valuable asset," says Mayor Robert Forbes. "We're trying to band together one last time. We don't want to lose it."

Running it as a municipal pool could be the answer, said Forbes, he also frets that that could prove a white elephant for a borough where "we count every paper clip." Even the loss of tax revenue from the club "is something we'd feel."

At an informal meeting Thursday night in Oaklyn's municipal courtroom, Forbes waited for residents to trickle in. A meeting the week before drew only a handful of interested residents, and he feared public support for the pool was not strong enough to be worth the fight to save it. The number 30 was in his mind - any less, and this summer's pool season was in jeopardy.

Sixty people showed up.

"Last week I asked to rally the troops. It wasn't happening last week," he told the crowd. "I appreciate everyone coming out."

But support needs to come in the form of action, Forbes said, "not just who wants the pool to open, but who's willing to put in the elbow grease."

The borough will have more options when it takes the pool over by next summer, Forbes said, but the volunteers are necessary to get the pool open this year to keep its membership from drying up.

Forbes has begun talking to the state and county about possible grants, and with the help of borough council is trying to "come up with a sound business plan."

One option, Forbes said, is that the borough acquire a half-acre lot from the lumberyard next door where the club could add sorely needed picnic tables, a volleyball court, and other amenities. "We'd like to make it a destination that pays for itself," he said.

There is no hope that the borough can start operating the club this year, however. Foreclosure for non-payment of taxes won't be complete until September, and swim season ends Labor Day.

Forbes' immediate goal, he said, is to somehow open the pool this season so that members don't join other pools and youth swim teams in neighboring Collingswood and Haddon Township.

"Once that happens," he said, "it's hard to get them back."

Increasingly, municipalities are looking for ways to support their swim clubs.

Four years ago Cherry Hill's then-mayor, Bernie Platt, urged the private pools in town, whose memberships ranged from about 100 to 500 households each, to form what is now the Cherry Hill Association of Pools, which uses its greater buying power to buy chemicals, insurance and lifeguard training at reduced costs.

The town has also begun providing cost-saving services to the clubs because, said township spokeswoman Bridget Palmer, "they're such an asset."

Services include trash, recycling and leaf pickup, tree maintenance, sweeping parking lots, repairing potholes, and using public works crews to move bleachers for the annual township "Cherry Bowl" swim meet.

In another cost-saving move, the township slashed the assessed value of the swim clubs in last year's property revaluation. Annual tax bills of $1,000 and $2,000 are now typical, she said - about a tenth of what they used to be.

The revaluation was warranted, Palmer said, because at most clubs "memberships are not as strong as they used be."

Whalen, president of Stratford, said his club recently joined Cherry Hill Pool Association to share in its purchasing power. It also asked Stratford borough to consider reducing its $16,000 property tax and preparing to refinance its mortgage from 8 percent to 4 percent, and it has has brought on a local carwash as its swim team sponsor.

Long-term stability also means increasing membership, said Whalen, who would like to expand it from its current 200 households to about 250.

"We've always asking ourselves 'How do we draw you away from the Shore?' " he said. "How do we become your pool?"