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Pool money running dry

The Baltimore Sun

Neighbors in North Linthicum have gathered at their community pool for more than three decades' worth of summers. Friends barbecued. Children learned to swim. Teenagers got their first jobs as lifeguards.

Now, the pool has become another victim of the financial crisis. Faced with years of declining membership and mounting debt - and dim prospects for a loan to ride out the slump - it is unlikely to open for another season.

"Every year, the pool makes enough just to squeak by," said Tu Armagost, president of the North Linthicum Recreation Club, which owns and operates the facility. "We had wanted to market the pool more. We had a Web site design ready to go. We went to numerous banks. They all said the same thing: It's just too risky right now."

The pool, which opened in 1975, had thrived for years. But membership in recent years has dwindled. Last year, just 37 families bought the $510 seasonal membership, and the pool finished $15,000 in debt.

Armagost and Alan Doelp, the treasurer, are looking for an infusion of cash to save the pool, but they are preparing to file bankruptcy papers if no one steps up to help them.

Pools nationwide operated by local municipalities are being forced to cut hours or close because of the economic downtown, according to Thomas M. Lachocki of the Colorado-based National Swimming Pool Foundation. And independently operated community pools such as the Linthicum facility, he said, are more vulnerable during tough economic times because they are often run by volunteers who lack training and experience.

The North Linthicum facility was born from an idea in 1973 by Jon Squire, then president of the North Linthicum Improvement Association, said his wife, Sharon Squire.

The Squires and three other families put their homes up as collateral to secure the $20,000 bank loan - half of the money to buy the 1.9-acre plot of wooded land and the rest to build a spacious L-shaped pool. Plans for a full recreation center, with tennis courts and other amenities, never materialized.

By the summer of 1975, the pool was packed with swimmers from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The pool has been host to ice cream socials, teen dances and children's birthday parties. And by 1981, the pool's mortgage was paid off, according to financial records.

"We learned who our neighbors were," said Lorraine "Lo" Neumeister, who with her husband also put up their home as collateral. "We all became friends. Our kids went to school together. So we had a lot of fun up there - back in the good old days."

Last summer, Angie Armagost, Tu's wife, worked the snack counter at the pool. She said memberships have decreased as the neighborhood has aged and the children grew into adults and many moved away. But the pool has served a steady stream of guests in the past few years, she said.

The year before last, the fifth-graders from Overlook Elementary School had their graduation party there. And for nearly a decade, children from a nearby church day care played and frolicked in the main pool and circular baby pool.

The main pool is not Olympic-size, but it has a diving board, and at its deepest, the pool is 8 1/2 feet deep. Baby blue and teal wooden picnic tables flank the grassy area around the pool, which is adjacent to a small building, containing an office, bathrooms with showers and lockers and the snack room, where pizza and ice cream are sold.

"All the other pools, you can't play games, you can't dive, you can't use a flotation device, and they're really not that fun," said Angie Armagost. "At least this one's fun - my kids can attest to that. They had lots of fun."

On the side of the pool's office, closest to the gravel parking lot, the pool's name is painted and adorned with a palm tree.

With news of the pool's likely closure, residents old and new have stepped up to try to save it, donating about $7,500.

Armagost and Doelp wrote their marketing strategy as part of a 30-page loan pitch to secure $30,000 - enough to retire the debt and maintain a balance going forward."This is not a community of well-connected people," Doelp said. "We don't have people like Paris Hilton. We have to try to get by the best we can." Pool members have also reached out to Anne Arundel County officials, hoping that the pool's location, adjacent to Overlook Park, would grant it attention from the county Department of Recreation and Parks. But county officials, with their own money problems, could offer no help.

"It was commendable that the community stepped up to have the initial existence," said Daryl Jones, the county councilman who represents the Linthicum area. "It's something that really did serve the community well. It's just a sad situation that the community finds itself in. It's even more sad that the county is in a position that it really cannot extend a hand to help them keep it open. Services like that are things that we really rely on to make a community feel like home, feel welcoming."

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