|The Parklawn Pool|
We were in a “death spiral,” says Dave Galway, the current president and membership chair of the Parklawn Recreation Association. “When people start to see the pool deteriorate, when membership is down and repairs can’t be made, people don’t want to be a part of it,” he says. A proposed cell tower would have brought in needed revenue, but that project didn’t happen.
So a couple of years ago, the pool’s volunteer board of directors came up with a new membership recruiting strategy, and by the summer of 2017, membership was way up.
Up until about three years ago, the pool, in the Parklawn community in Lincolnia, had about 160 to 170 members a year, Galway says.
Last summer, there were 377 memberships, which actually exceeds the capacity of 350 stated in the association’s bylaws, and even had a wait list. Parklawn has attracted members from all over Northern Virginia, plus a few from D.C. and Maryland, Galway notes.
Galway wants to share the pool’s success story because he believes the steps taken by Parklawn could be replicated by any community pool.
To recruit more members, and especially young families moving into the neighborhood, the Parklawn pool board started offering a discounted membership for the first two years and stopped charging for children under 4. “That gives people a feel for whether the pool is right for them,” Galway says.
The regular membership fee for a two-person household (a couple, a single parent and child over 4, or two roommates) is $400. With the discount, it’s just $325 annually for two years. Similar discounts were set for the other membership categories, including individuals, families, and seniors.
“A lot of folks took advantage of that,” Galway says. And once people start coming to the pool, they are more willing to keep joining year after year. “The discount is grounded in good will. Once you understand what the pool is all about, you’re more willing to pay a higher rate.” The discount was so successful, the board rolled it back to one year for the summer of 2018.
And the pool started giving returning members $50 off the membership rate if they perform four hours of work at the pool, such as maintaining the grounds or running the snack bar. That helps people meet other members, and “the pool becomes more like a family,” he says.
Current members were given an incentive – 10 free guest passes – if they bring in a new member.
Also, while most local pools charge a rental fee for hosting a birthday party or other event, Parklawn began allowing members to have parties for free. The host is charged just $5 a person for anyone invited to a party who isn’t a member. That’s a huge savings for families who had paid big bucks for holding a child’s birthday party in a commercial venue, Galway says. Drawing non-members’ children for a nominal fee gives their parents a chance to see the pool and consider joining.
One obstacle to attracting new members is the Parklawn Pool’s lack of visibility from a main road. Located in a secluded area adjacent to Holmes Run Stream Valley Park, the pool is accessible from a long driveway in a cul de sac. “We don’t have curbside appeal,” Galway notes. “We have people in the neighborhood who’ve lived here for five years and don’t even know there is a pool.”
As a result, the pool board began an aggressive marketing campaign. It posted free ads on craigslist. Pool members put up yard signs. And the board asked members who live outside the community to advertise the Parklawn Pool in their neighborhood email lists and Nextdoor.
The pool also reached out to families in Arlington and Falls Church communities where the local pool is too full to accept new members or where the swim team is so successful that only the top swimmers get to compete regularly. “You have pools in Arlington with waiting lists 400 or 500 deep. People can’t get in for years,” Galway says. “They don’t know there are other pools not too far away with swim teams.”
Parklawn’s swim team is in Division 16, second to last, among the 18 divisions in the Northern Virginia Swimming League. There are just 80 children on the Parklawn Piranhas swim team, which means everyone gets to compete.
Running a community pool takes a lot of effort, Galway notes. Most of the pools in this area were built when the neighborhoods were built, in the 1950s and 1960s. “They are self-sustaining. It’s a burden on residents to volunteer and run these things. It’s herculean.”
Money for upgrades
The increased membership at Parklawn has helped fund several new projects. Two years ago, the roof on the bathhouse was replaced, along with much of the deck furniture. The filtration system was replaced and the women’s bathroom was renovated last year. A defunct tennis court has been removed and replaced with a soccer field.
Projects to be carried out before the start of this summer include renovating the men's bathroom, white coating on the bottom of the pool, and replacement of the coping stones around the perimeter. White coating must be done every 10 years, at a cost of $70,000 to $100,000. Last time, the pool board had to take out a second mortgage to pay for it. This year, based on increased membership revenue and funds in reserve, the board has the cash on hand.
Galway would like to see the board raise the minimum capacity to 400. “I don’t like to turn anybody away,” he says. If people can’t get into the Parklawn Pool, he is happy to direct them to other local pools. “The point is to keep all these pools viable, to make sure people have a place to swim.”