MIDDLETOWN — A large number of residents came to the township committee meeting Monday night to protest a plan to close and possibly sell the Middletown Swim Club.
Despite objections from those in attendance, the five-member governing body stood by their decision to close the club.
Located on Harmony Road, the swim club has four pools, tennis courts, a picnic area, a playground, bathhouses and cabanas. Memberships in the club were available to the public on a seasonal basis, but officials say that the membership has declined and revenues from the swim club are no longer able to fund its upkeep and pay expenses.
“It’s not a business we can continue to be in,” said Mayor Anthony Fiore. “This is a decision that is in the best interest of everybody,”
Despite Fiore’s statement, the crowd was not buying it.
Winding Brook Way resident Robert Manse told the committee that the club, “can continue to be a valuable asset that can remain self sustaining.”
But township officials said that as a utility, under township ownership, the club must remain self sustaining and cannot be subsidized by township taxpayers.
“The numbers are what the numbers are,” Fiore said, adding the club has been able to continue for the last few years because there had been a budget surplus. “That is no longer available to us,” the mayor said.
“Auction is the only viable way to go,” said township attorney Brian Nelson.
“No one expressed an interest in simply running the operation for us,” explained Anthony Mercantante, township administrator. There are, however, about six or seven “serious inquiries,” to acquire the site for private operation, Mercantante continued.
Last Friday representatives from those entities took a two-hour tour of the site, Mercantante said, but none so far has submitted a proposal.
Officials said they would agree to a deed restriction limiting the property to recreational use.
Mercantante declined to name the various entities interested in the site. But last winter, township officials held discussions with the Community YMCA, Red Bank, about having the Y operate the club.
Representatives for the interested parties who toured the club last week were in agreement that “It needs to be a year-round facility,” Nelson said.
Officials said they plan to draft and approve an ordinance that would allow the auction of the property. Given the steps involved, the property wouldn’t be operational for this coming summer.
The site “needs a significant capital improvement,” to bring it up to the requirements under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Fiore.
Despite officials’ assertions, a roomful of club members stressed the importance of the swim club in their lives and to quality of life in the community, noting that the club has produced an Olympic bronze medal winner and another resident who has since gone on to become a member of the U.S. Navy Seals.
About 14 former club members and township residents, including accountants, lawyers and business owners, have formed a coalition, calling themselves the Save our Swim Club (SOS) Committee, which has been analyzing available data on the club’s finances and will draft a business plan that the group said would allow the club to operate at a profit, Manse told the committee.
“We would like the township to know that our committee will work diligently and we will turn the club into a revenue producing utility in 2012 and beyond,” Manse said.
“I want you to know I’m someone who has been sitting at that pool club for seven years,” Tracy Lewis told the committee. Lewis said she works as a government auditor and her review of the numbers indicated that “This pool club can actually make money.”
“It was not run as efficiently as it could be running,” she explained.
“The club cannot be operated with Band Aids, one more year, one more year,” Mercantante said, as that had happened for the last couple of years.
But a 25-year member Kathy Russoniello warned, “This will look as a failure,” to sell it off.
“So, please, please err on the side of caution,” she said. “Think before you act.”
“Where are our kids suppose to learn how to swim?” asked Susan Weiss. “It does seem we’re not getting clear answers to things.”
The committee hopes to have its business plan prepared for the next township committee meeting later this month and Mercantante said it would be evaluated.
But Fiore earlier in the evening indicated, “This is a decision we have to make and will make.”
Last year’s operating expenses for the club were “just south of $511,000,” said Nicola Trasente, the township’s chief financial officer.
For the pool and tennis club to operate this year there would need to be $600,000 available by April 1 for the municipal budget, Fiore said. But even with that money, there are upgrades that would have to be undertaken, Mercantante added.
The township has owned and operated the swim and tennis club since 1997. Prior to the township’s purchase it had operated as a private club for more than 30 years.