By Aaron Bibro

Ralph Waldo Emerson defined success as laughing often and much, winning the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, leaving the world a bit better by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition, among other criteria in his famous quote from the 19th century.

I don’t mean any disrespect to Mr. Emerson, but he never worked in local government. Success is not as easily defined in the context of local government, specifically public recreation in the form of a swimming pool.

I manage a suburban community, Hatfield Township, in the suburbs of Philadelphia that boasts the award-winning and, occasionally, the headache-inducing Hatfield Township Aquatic Center.

When I was hired three years ago, it was made abundantly clear to me that the goal for the facility was to be financially self-sufficient rather than relying on property taxes for anything beyond the debt service. While this goal has been accomplished for the most part since opening a decade ago, the profits were marginal and did not provide the financial security to ease the long-term concerns of township officials.


Revenue Needed

In the winter of 2015, the pool advisory board, as well as township staff with the support of the elected officials, formulated a plan to help attract more customers to the pool and therefore generate more revenue to help sustain the facility, provide for needed capital improvements, and ease or hopefully eliminate the burden on the local taxpayers.

The plan was not complicated. Passes were sold at a 10 percent discount beginning in the winter and the rates incrementally increased as the pool season approached. Passes could be purchased online or in the township building.

A modest marketing campaign was launched consisting of postcards mailed directly to homes of residents and neighboring communities. The aquatic center’s mascot, Sharky, visited local schools and generated excitement while handing out free passes and coupons.

Advertisements were placed in local coupon and discount magazines. An online magazine named the facility the best “public pool” in the county, which generated a good amount of exposure.

These efforts, combined with one of the warmest and driest summers in recent years, made for a summer none of us expected.


A Packed Pool

Sales for pool memberships increased slightly, but it was the daily passes that exploded. An average year generated roughly $150,000 worth of revenue from daily passes. In 2015, the township sold more than $350,000 worth of daily passes.

Families from throughout the region discovered that they could spend the day at a quasi-water park for a fraction of the cost of a well-known regional theme-park type of facility. I even met a customer who came down every weekend from Brooklyn, New York.

The net profit for the season was more than triple any prior year, which allowed the township to make many necessary capital improvements to the aging facility. As I mentioned in the beginning, success can be defined in many ways.

The definition and degree of success also depends on your perspective. As the township manager, my job is to understand and solicit a wide range of perspectives from the community, customers, elected and appointed officials, and staff.

After leaving meetings with the finance director throughout the summer, I was thrilled to hear that this was the most successful season, financially, in the history of the facility. I felt like the world’s greatest municipal manager on these days.

When I talked to new customers from communities outside of Hatfield, I was elated to hear that they viewed coming to Hatfield as an affordable mini-getaway. I left those meetings grateful to have played a role in bringing happiness to these families.


Residents View Things Differently

After fielding dozens of phone calls from longtime residents and customers, I was saddened to hear that they were so upset at the large crowds and the new faces invading their space and comfort zone. I felt like the worst municipal manager on the planet after those phone calls.

As I talked to the pool manager and parks and recreation director, I left feeling overwhelmed and frustrated when hearing about all of the challenges the pool staff was having trying to manage these large and rowdy crowds.

When watching more than 50 people complain to a group of committed volunteers at an advisory board meeting—an increase of 50 compared to the normal attendance rate—I understood how fleeting success can be.

I empathized with the elected officials’ struggles of balancing the needs of local residents with the challenges of operating an expensive facility.

So how do I define the 2015 pool season in Hatfield Township? It depends on who I talk to on a given day. One thing I do know, rates for daily passes are increasing in 2016.

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