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Clubs welcome much-needed surge in pool memberships

| Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Joan Riggs, 86, of Mt. Lebanon, has been swimming at the Bower Hill Swim Club for 50 years. Standing near the empty pool, Saturday, April 19, Ms. Riggs looks forward to swimming her laps each morning of the upcoming summer season.

In warm weather, a secluded swim club off Bower Hill Road in Scott becomes Joan Riggs' second home.

“It's the jewel of the South Hills,” Riggs said recently next to Bower Hill Swim Club's still-empty pool as club officials prepared the facility for the season opening on Memorial Day weekend. “Walking down the hill, you see the clean, glistening water, and oh — it's lovely.”

Yet, she worries. Membership numbers at many private swim clubs fell during hard economic times as families opted for less expensive public pools, where they pay for daily admittance rather than costlier seasonal membership dues. Families pay $550 a year at Bower Hill, after a $450 one-time bond is paid.

“I worry about it closing down,” Riggs said. “I wonder, why isn't this placed jammed?”

It might soon be.

Membership numbers are rebounding, private swim club officials in Western Pennsylvania said. The recession hurt, they said. Now, however, some clubs have waiting lists.

“We are at capacity, and we have a waiting list that is quite extensive,” said Chris Martin, a board member with Woodland Swim Club in Sewickley. “We're in a good spot. The pool is running well.”

Geoff Dutelle, manager at the Community Swim Club of O'Hara, said his club is close to capacity with 400 families, 63 seniors and a total of 1,700 members.

Dutelle and others said private clubs offer benefits over backyard and public pools.

“There is a sense of community,” Dutelle said. “There's a lot of legacy members, families who have been going to the swim club for five generations. They bring a lot of pride.”

Riggs can relate. She has been a member at Bower Hill Swim Club since its opening. This year is the club's 50th anniversary.

“Members are our biggest recruiters — that's probably what's kept us open all these years,” said Jeanie Hamm, a Bower Hill Swim Club board member. “And you learn something that's easy on your body and you can do forever.”

Pennsylvanians love to swim.

Statewide, there are 10,418 private and public pools, sixth most in the country, according to the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Plus, there are 137,336 in-ground backyard pools in the state, seventh most in the country, and 211,862 above-ground backyard pools, eighth most in the country, according to the foundation's statistics.

But the number of in-ground backyard pools is dropping, down 4 percent in 2012 from 2011, the stats show.

Tom Knestaut, Buena Vista Volunteer Fire Co.'s trustee and pool committee chairman, said many people have grown weary of maintaining their own pool.

“Hopefully, that helps us out,” he said of the fire company's swimming pool.

Knestaut recently announced that the department received a $110,000 grant from the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County for pool upgrades. He hopes the improvements will draw more swimmers and help reverse a trend in which the department loses $7,000 to $19,000 a year managing the pool.

Buena Vista swimming pool is open to the public. But it feels like a private club with its intimate, family-oriented atmosphere, Knestaut said.

“This pool was originally built by volunteers in 1950; the history of it obviously is long and it's dear to a lot of us,” Knestaut said. “People in the community, their parents, aunts and uncles all worked on it. It keeps the small, hometown feeling going.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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