Fifty-seven years on, the Padonia Park Club is still making a splash

For Towson resident Amy Walsh, summers are about making the most of the family's seven-day membership to the Padonia Park Club, in Cockeysville.

"It's just a place where you can relax," Walsh, of Burkleigh Square, said.

The St Francis of Assisi School kindergarten teacher and mother of two, who has the summer off, spends most of the season next to the main pool at Padonia.

On many summer days, Walsh packs up the car with her 9-year-old son, Jack Walsh, and 11-year-old daughter, Lillian Walsh, to head to the pool and make the most of their roughly $1,100 seasonal membership.

Toweling off for a break on a recent day, Lillian said she's "bummed" when it rains and the family can't spend the day at the club. She and her brother said they enjoy the pool but also love the many childrens' activities programmed into the summer season, including s'mores nights and camping.

"There's so many pools that you can't lose interest," added Jack, before jumping into the pool with his sister.

The Walsh family is one of many in the Towson area that keep coming back summer after summer to the Padonia Park Club.

The pool and leisure club is in its 57th season this summer — a fact the club's builder and co-owner, Ira Rigger, of Cockeysville, said he never would have foreseen.

"It's a lot more of a social atmosphere than a regular, neighborhood pool," Rigger, 94, said.

Rigger was already an established pool builder in the 1950s when a group of local businessmen hired him to construct the main pool in 1959. Unable to rally enough members to make the venture profitable, the businessmen abandoned the project, leaving both the pool, which opened in 1960, and its management, to the 50 members still interested in making a go of it.

However, the Padonia Park pool was built for only a few families, more than a decade before neighboring farmland was sold to create what is now known as Mays Chapel. Without the population to support the pool, the founding members struggled to pay for maintenance and operations and, in 1962, agreed to turn over the deed to Rigger to pay off their construction debt, Rigger said.

"As an entrepreneur I'm dumb enough to think I can do things," Rigger said, adding that he thought he could operate the pool and make it work. "All I thought about was getting it to be financially solvent, but I had no idea where it was going to go in the future."

Adapting to change

Little did Rigger know then that his pool project would turn into such an expansive business, he said of the club, which is still family owned, with Rigger owning the majority.

"Now there are six pools," Rigger said, naming them off one by one. "There's a splash pool, two baby pools, a lap pool, a competition pool. There's a pool for every purpose."

However, membership offers more than swimming pools, said Kathy Angstadt, Rigger's daughter and Padonia Park Club vice president.

About 1,000 people a day participate in swim lessons, tennis, lake boating and fishing and special events throughout the season that include movie nights, crab feasts and camp outs.

About 200 seasonal employees and 18 full-time employees oversee operations at the club, which was spun off into a corporation to handle growing membership.

"As a business we've been able to thrive because we've been responsive to changing lifestyles," Angstadt said.

In the late '60s, Rigger decided to change the club's membership options to offer weekday, weekend and seven-day individual memberships. Rigger foresaw that more women would be entering the workforce in the 1970s, Angstadt said. Individual rates were more profitable for the club and more affordable for families' budgets.

"Now families could buy pieces of the whole to accommodate those life changes," Angstadt said.

Over the years, the club grew, adding more pools and, in 1992, a two-story building to house a childcare center and events hall. With more members came more club events, weddings and an adults-only section featuring a Cabana Bar.

"The way I look at it, we have people who are members of the Cabana Bar who just happen to have a pool [membership]," Rigger said. "I sometimes wonder if some of them ever get in the pool."

Nationwide, the failure to adapt to changing trends has led to pool closures, said USA Swimming aquatic programming specialist Sue Nelson. Nelson offers programming and advice on maintaining self-sustaining aquatic centers on behalf of the national governing body for competitive swimming.

The group has tracked hundreds of pool closures across the country since 2008 that Nelson attributes to a failure to budget for regular renovations, operation costs and income.

"Passion plays a big part," Nelson said by email. "[It's] understanding that aquatics is a business and programming cannot be given away. Someone must pay. Just like any other business, you must keep up with the trends and know what programs work for your area."

'I want it to live on'

Greg Hunter calls the grassy, adults-only section of the Padonia Park Club his "home away from home." Occasionally, it is also the work-from-home salesman's virtual office.

"At 30 acres, it's larger than a neighborhood pool, but being five minutes from home isn't too bad either," said Hunter, of Mays Chapel, who has been a member for 17 years.

Hunter moved to the area for the club and to be zoned in the Dulaney High School district, he said. Though his family had belonged to other neighborhood pools in the past, they were "nothing like this one," he said of Padonia.

"The Rigger family just does a great job," he added. "The pool is immaculate and the grounds are well kept. There's something nice for everyone."

Nearby, 7-year-old Max Sweeney took another turn at the log roller as his mother, Allison Sweeney, a 12-year member looked on. The roughly 12-foot pool toy mimics the design of an actual wood log.

Max took a turn hoisting himself onto the log, catching his balance and struggling to stay on top of the spinning device. Within 15 seconds, he'd fallen in and taken a place in line to do it all over again.

Having a pass allows the Parkton family to spend most summer weekdays and some weekends at the club, Sweeney said.

"The kids love it here," Sweeney said. "They offer other things to do and you don't necessarily have to get wet. It satisfies everyone."

Looking back on 58 seasons of operations, Rigger said he is also satisfied.

"It makes me feel like it's my legacy," he said. "I'm very proud of it, and I want it to live on."

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