Debate over funding Carver community pool

Posted: July 27, 2014

Built by neighbors in response to racial segregation, the pool at the George Washington Carver Community Center in Norristown had opened every summer since 1960.

As the only outdoor public pool in the municipality, it was not just a place for kids to swim, but a point of pride for a struggling community.

In recent years, the center has struggled to raise the money to open the pool. This summer, it won't open at all.

The closure has become a tipping point, heightening calls for a public-private model or municipal oversight of an institution that has been run by volunteers for six decades.

"Some changes need to be made. I'm not saying people need to be changed, but definitely changes in how they look long-term at sustaining the Carver center," said Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie S. Richards.

In June, Carver leaders said they needed $35,000 to make repairs and hire lifeguards for the summer. Donations are not tax-deductible, because the center lost its nonprofit status in 2013 after failing to file tax forms for three years.

An anonymous donor stepped forward who said he would only make a contribution if the Norristown Municipal Council oversaw its expenditure.

The council was willing to help, but "they wanted to have conversations about changes in Carver's business model," said Municipal Administrator Crandall O. Jones. Among other things, he said, council members wanted to know what kind of long-term maintenance the pool needed and where funding would come from in the future.

Carver board president David Hodo said last week that "the repairs that we've constantly made on the pool are now beyond the Band-Aid stage - it requires a massive reconstruction."

The center's funding has fluctuated drastically over the last decade. Tax filings show that from 1999 to 2009, the board spent $13,669 more than it brought in. And in 2012, when Montgomery County stopped giving out earmarks, the Carver lost its largest and most stable funding source.

Unlike most pools in the region, which are municipally run or require membership, the Carver is a true community pool, serving an average of 40 children a day. It runs on a shoestring budget and volunteer work. Admission is $3, and those who can't pay work minor chores in exchange for a day of splashing.

Meredith A. Huffman, executive director of the Blue Bell-based Genuardi Family Foundation, said the Carver has done a good job with its limited resources and a board with little expertise in nonprofit leadership.

Although her foundation will continue donating to the Carver, Huffman agreed with Richards: "I think that a change needs to happen. What they're doing isn't sustainable."

Both the board and the community would prefer to see the center maintain its independence.

"When government gets involved, it changes the whole dynamic of things," said Wanalyn Baptiste, a Norristown resident who remembers swimming there in the 1960s. "If we could figure out how to get funding without the government getting involved, that would be great."

Hodo said the center is exploring partnerships, but "there's no talk of us becoming under the control of anyone else. ... We'll have the last word."

Partnerships and program expansion have been on the Carver's agenda for years. Hodo said in the past, it's been difficult to build consensus because "Norristown is a very big, multifaceted community."

The board is moving forward now in part because donations may depend on it, and in part because Hodo said potential partners recognize that any arrangement will have to benefit both sides.

"That's not something we've seen a lot of in Norristown up to this point," he said. In addition to the municipal council, Hodo said, the board is talking to Cabrini College, the YMCA, and other groups for possible support.

Hodo said the Carver is up-to-date on its tax filings and expects to have its 501(c)3 status restored "any day now."

Richards, the county commissioner, said calls for donations will continue to be answered because the Carver plays an important role as a youth activity, a crime-prevention tool, and a community gathering place.

"Funders have stepped up, and in the discussions, it's not just money that's needed," she said. "There has to be a funding mechanism in place for them to receive money. And then there has to be a model. How are they going to function in the future? How is that pool going to be ready year after year?"

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