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Private swim clubs struggling to endure difficult times

Patrick Varine
| Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thousands of pounds of garbage have been dumped into the diving well. A wading pool is full of water that is nearly black with algae and filled with old flotation devices and wooden pallets. Graffiti and broken beer bottles are everywhere.

That is the unfortunate state of the former Penn Aqua Swim Club. Tucked away off Lynnwood Drive in south Penn Hills, the pool, which closed around 2009, appears to have been, at the very least, the site of some destructive loitering.

Penn Aqua was once one of many private swim clubs in the Pittsburgh suburbs. The ones that remain open are increasingly finding new ways to adapt to smaller numbers than they have seen in the past.

Jeff Lazor, executive board president at Garden City Swim Club in Monroeville, grew up swimming in the club's pool. Developer Orin Sampson built the pool in 1955; he dedicated recreational space for pools in his other developments such as University Park in Monroeville and the houses surrounding the Penn Aqua Club in Penn Hills' Churchill Valley neighborhood.

"When I was younger, there were three kids in every house and the pools were jam-packed," Lazor said. "It flourished for quite some time, but it hasn't been as easy the last 20 years."

The Penn Aqua Club pool's condition today is a far cry from its heyday, said former board member George Steffey of Leetsdale.

"At the time, there was a limit on the number of members we could take, because of the pool's size," said Steffey, who served on the pool's board from 1989 to 1993.

Steffey estimated the club had between 200 and 250 members.

Penn Hills does have other private swim clubs -- Highlands Aqua Club, Rosedale and the Blackridge Swim Club -- that are still open every summer, but the success of a private swim club can be largely dependent on the makeup of its community.

"Garden City (Swim Club) went to nonprofit status a few years ago, because of tax arrears and the aging population," Lazor said, adding that many Monroeville pools received state and local grants up until this year, when local funding disappeared because of budget concerns.

Lazor estimated Garden City to have about 80 family memberships and 300 members.

"It's not easy now, but we're able to stay above water with a lot of volunteer help," he said.

Woodland Swim Club in Sewickley is an example of how private swim clubs can endure. Board member Chris Andrews said the pool, which celebrated its 90th anniversary last year, has about 150 families registered, with a waiting list for those interested in joining.

"Our pool has stayed in business for nearly a century because it's in a beautiful, wooded location, members are focused on having fun, members can bring their own food and beverages, we run the pool with a board of directors and a part-time pool manager, and we have a thriving swim team that is for beginners and highly competitive swimmers," Brown said.

During a rebuilding project in the mid-2000s, however, Brown said Woodland's membership did fall substantially.

"Members were asked to pay a one-time fee or to pay a new membership rate for the next 10 years," Brown said. "We lost about 50 families that decided paying the increased costs were not suitable."

Once the renovations were complete, Woodland advertised a free swim day throughout Sewickley the weekend before Memorial Day. By the time the holiday rolled around, Brown said the membership roster was full again.

A healthy financial state is rare for private swim clubs, Highlands Aqua Club President Rebecca Fenoglietto said.

"Any swim club that tells you they don't have trouble with membership is lying," she said.

A decade ago, Fenoglietto said Highlands saw "a dramatic drop" in membership.

"The last few years, we've been able to get the word out and stem the decline," she said.

Where things now stand

Penn Hills swim clubs do not have municipal funding built into their budgets, and Fenoglietto said Highlands officials have been able to take advantage of state grants secured through Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

The Penn Aqua property, deeded to the club in March 1960 according to county assessment records, was originally funded through the purchase of bonds by members. The land is about 8.5 acres and has an assessed value of $70,000.

County taxes have not been paid on the property since 2009, and delinquent school and municipal tax bills have been forwarded to the Maiello, Brungo & Maiello law firm for collection, according to the Penn Hills School District tax office. Those bills were sent to the Penn Hills address of two former board members who declined requests for an interview. Additionally, calls to Robert Coates of Penn Hills -- whose address is listed under "Owner Mailing" on Allegheny County's property assessment website -- were not returned.

Penn Hills Code Enforcement Director Robert Hunter said his department received a code violation complaint about the property last spring, but it was a complaint about overgrown vegetation and fallen trees. Code officers did not visit the pool itself.

Neither Hunter nor planning director Howard Davidson were aware of the trash at the club nor vandalism to the property, which is chained off at the bottom of Lynnwood Drive. Penn Hills police were called to the property in September 2009 for a criminal trespassing report involving four juveniles.

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.

Penn Hills has an ordinance on the books that addresses existing structures, but any remediation on the part of the municipality would be driven by complaints from nearby residents.

In the meantime, swim clubs that remain open are working to continue being a vibrant, viable option for residents.

"We've just had to find new ways," Fenoglietto said.

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