Despite the fact that officials have now declared that the Middletown Swim and Tennis Club is drowning in so much debt that it must be sold, members of the club believe they can keep their beloved sinking summer venue above water.
Led by a core grassroots group of about 14 individuals, members of the township-owned recreational facility at 214 Harmony Road are brainstorming ways to prevent it from being sunk forever.
Known informally as the Middletown Swim and Tennis Club Membership Committee, principals of the group and many of the club's more than 1100 paid members have been meeting regularly since mid-January to view the township's financials on the facility.
Township officials, however, have said in several ways that, as the old adage goes, they really aren't jumping ship on the club, they just can't hold their breath any longer.
"If they want to buy it, then that is an option they're welcome to look into," Mayor Tony Fiore said. "We just have to sell it. We tried to finding someone to run it, but that option has failed. So, we just have no other choice."
But some in the grassroots group dedicated to saving the club are even talking about tapping into their own wallets to make up for the financial shortfall that township officials claim has turned to club into a money pit for taxpayers.
Committee members include: architects, builders, plumbers, electricians, heating and cooling contractors, accountants, attorneys, and insurance professionals, according to Robert Manse, the group's spokesperson.
Those members are willing to donate their services to perform an estimated $20,000 extreme makeover to the club's aging infrastructure that township officials have pointed to as another reason to close the facility, Manse said.
"We're trying to figure out how not to be a burden on the township," Manse said in a telephone interview.
"We have a lot of business owners, attorneys, builders, contractors, that have offered to help with some of these things," he added.
Specifically, the committee has approached its 239 cabana members about committing long-term to purchasing those cabanas, said Manse, a township resident and club member for nine years. There are 55 cabanas in the club.
Another 15 of the club's total 1129 paid members are on a waiting list for cabanas, he noted. Mayor Fiore later said that he did not believe membership was that high.
The committee has also mulled raising cabana fees or letting members who do not have cabanas rent them from their regular owners on days when they are not in use. Any increased revenues over the regular cabana costs and rents would then go into a fund to allow members, rather than the township, to operate the club, Manse said.
"The cabana owners could pitch in by bringing others to help share in the costs," he said.
Offering swim and tennis lessons, now included in club membership, for an additional $25 fee per student, is another possible source of income that the committe has considered, Manse said.
Business owners and other professionals within the membership have bandied about the idea of sponsoring various fundraisers throughout the year for the club's preservation.
"We have a lot of volunteeers who would be happy to sponsor them," said Manse, an independent business owner.
Requesting that only one or two of the club's four pools during non-peak hours and weekdays is also a possibility, he added.
Despite what Mayor Tony Fiore and other officials in township hall have said at public meetings, the swim club could run in the black and turn a profit with a bit of retooling and creative thinking, Manse pointed out.
"What a terrible message Middletown would send to the other Monmouth County towns if they don't open [the swim club]," Manse said. "But the township is looking at it as a lost cause."
"This can be a money maker for the township, if it is run properly," he added.
Going forward, Manse said he and other committee members would like to invite a representative of the township's Parks and Recreation Department to join their group and hear their ideas. Since the Gregg Silva, longtime department director, resigned, plans have been in the works to reconfigure the department, making it only a Recreation Department and letting parks maintenance responsibilities fall within Public Works' management.
With most of parks and recreation staff depleted due to budget cuts and the retirement of embattled director Gregg Silva, the township planning to restructure that department's functions into public works later this year.
The members also will continue to attend township committee meetings to advocate for the club and to present their plans to Fiore and other officials.
Sale of the club was discussed at Monday's meeting. The plan is to sell the facility and deed restrict the property mandating that whoever buys it must use it for recreational purposes only. Patch will run a comprehensive story on those particulars tomorrow.
At the committee's Jan. 17 meeting, Township Attorney Brian Nelson vehemently denied rumors and reports circulating throughout the township that the swim club is to be sold to a developer for housing. The plan will not allow for any such development. See the follow-up story tomorrow.
Fiore, Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante, Nelson and others have stated that the more than 50-year-old swim club has seen its membership numbers drop over the past three years while its operating costs rise. The pool club is run by a utility separate from the township budget.
The township purchased the club for just over $1 million from a private owner in 1997. At that time, the private owner cited dropping revenue and costly capital improvements as his reasons for selling the property.
Editor Elaine Van Develde contributed to this story