Citzen Action Stops Cincinnati Pools from Closing

Soapbox Cincinnati writer Matt Cunningham reports how citizens were able to band together to keep their community pools open during tough budgetary times.

The pools will open.  That’s the news the Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC) announced in April, when a combination of public, private and community efforts motivated Cincinnati City Council to re-allocate funds to help open 19 city swimming pools this summer.

The story is likely familiar to anyone who follows the city’s news media: near-historic budget problems in the city forced City Council to move for sweeping cuts, including closure of the city’s pools.

This provoked a grassroots movement from the city’s neighborhoods, many of which began petition and fundraising drives to open their pools. As momentum grew across the city, additional sponsorship came in from larger community donors.

Enough had been raised by an April 15 deadline – and enough supporters had raised their voices – that city council voted to provide $600,000 to support the pools, with donations covering the slightly more than $200,000 needed to foot the rest of the bill.

While moving that much money – especially five months after the city budget first came out – drew protest from fiscally conservative voices in the city, the story of the Cincinnati pools raises a bigger question, one that goes beyond the dollars, and transcends one department’s effort to keep some of its services available to the community.

Could the drive that opened the pools be a model for how things can get done in Cincinnati?

“This is the first time I’m aware of the community taking such an active role,” said CRC Superintendent of Recreation Michael Thomas. “This is a very healthy thing for the community.”

Rather than lobbying CRC for their own interests or competing with other neighborhoods to change the priorities of neighborhoods’ pools, Cincinnati’s residents went to the streets, raising funds and to open as many pools as possible.

Children in Spring Grove Village made a video asking for support for the Winton Woods’ pool. Kids went door-to-door in Mt. Adams and Mt. Lookout, collecting spare change in coffee cans. A run in Saylor Park raised funds, and countless beach-themed parties were held, fliers were posted and neighborhood businesses were approached about donating.

But the community efforts went far beyond fundraising. Supporters collected petition signatures along with spare change. Concerned residents attended City Council meetings, wrote letters and emailed their representatives. And news coverage of the fundraising efforts projected a message: this is a big issue for constituents.

One has to suspect that fundraising alone might not have swayed council to release more than half a million dollars for a recreation expense in these tight times. But the combined effect of the money, petitions and media blitz appears to have made it very clear to the city’s lawmakers: Cincinnati wants its pools.

Could this suggest a new way of getting things done in Cincinnati? Cindy Sherding, a Northside resident with many years’ involvement in community efforts, said that the effort was not uncommon for her neighborhood, but the results were astounding.

“There’s such a volunteer spirit in Northside from any time there’s any kind of event,” she said. Still, she noted that the fundraising effort for Northside’s McKie Pool proceeded with unusual energy – perhaps from the neighborhood’s desire to provide an outlet for its children, or perhaps from the collective influence of a city’s worth of neighborhoods each working toward a shared goal.

“When standing on the corner of Blue Rock and Hamilton Avenue in beach garb during a cold Friday rush hour asking for spare change, I was amazed at the people that mentioned swimming at Mckie as a kid and even those that didn’t seem to have much money threw in some change,” she said.

Will neighborhoods begin to take public matters into their own hands, in an era of tight budgets and potentially limited support from centralized city leadership? Only time will tell, but it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to see at least some changes growing out of the work that has ensured Cincinnati kids will stay cool this summer.

Photos by Scott Beseler.

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