Hoping to dampen popularity of pool

Columbia: So many come to take a dip at River Hill that officials offer coupons for other pools.

July 17, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

When you're hot, you're hot!

Consider, for instance, the River Hill village pool. It is slightly newer and flashier than the others in Columbia. It boasts a sand volleyball court, a multicolored fountain of tubes and a sloped "beach entry" ramp to ease into the water.

During the hot summer months, it's the place to be -- teens and kids congregate, and adults catch up on gossip in the suburb's most affluent village.

But the pool's overflowing popularity -- attracting 30,000 more annual visits than any other Columbia pool -- has created an environment where it's not always easy to take a dip.

"Ever since it opened, we just had people saying, `It's so busy here -- you can get in the water, but you can't really swim,'" said Rob Goldman, the Columbia Association's vice president for sport and fitness.

So this summer, the Columbia Association is trying something new -- paying people to swim someplace else.

The association has sent coupons to about 3,100 families who used the River Hill pool last summer and are still association members, enticing them with a $50 gift certificate for any service or program if they visit some of Columbia's other 22 outdoor pools 10 times. A coupon for 50 percent off snack bar items at pools besides River Hill was also included.

A $50 savings might not sound like a lot to the highly paid professionals who live in the village's large houses, but pool manager Josh Mazalewski said there has been a noticeable drop in the number of swimmers.

The Columbia Association hasn't yet formally evaluated the success of the coupons.

On a slow afternoon last week, the pool had about 115 people. On weekends, there are usually 200 to 300 swimmers, Mazalewski said.

Hermond Palmer, of River Hill, uses the coupons to take his children -- Jacqueline, 8, and Jordan, 6 -- to the Dickinson pool in Kings Contrivance if he expects his neighborhood pool to be crowded. Palmer, a marketing consultant, said the pool allows his kids to play with their friends outside of school and "build lifelong memories."

The coupons have "prompted us to consider other alternatives that we might not normally consider," said Palmer, who was tossing Jacqueline in the River Hill pool. "It's great marketing because of the financial incentives."

River Hill and Dorsey's Search are the only villages that have only one pool. The other seven villages have two to four pools. (Town Center doesn't have one.)

Although River Hill is the second-smallest village, with a 4,587 population, its pool had 64,038 visits in 2000. That's almost as many as the four pools in Long Reach, Columbia's largest village (population 15,756), which had 69,258 visits combined that same year.

The other more popular pools -- Kendall Ridge, Clary's Forest and Dorsey Hall -- attracted 33,500 to 38,600 visits each in 2000. Most pools have about 15,000 visits annually, while some have as few as 5,000, Goldman said.

River Hill is also one of the few Columbia pools open every day and is the only pool that's home to two swim teams, which have more than 200 kids each.

Goldman said the River Hill pool -- which opened four years ago in Columbia's last village -- is popular because of its amenities. It's also the pool farthest west, attracting everyone on that side of town.

The village is mostly single-family homes -- unlike the rest of Columbia -- which means more kids who want to hit the pools in the summer.

"The kids want to be where the other kids are and where the features are," Goldman said.

That's why Anne Foreman, 14, and Arianna Shahegh, 15, go to the River Hill pool "like, every day" in their bright pink-and-blue bikinis. The River Hill High School sophomores, who were recently lounging on chairs near the volleyball court, said it's the main social gathering spot for their friends.

"It's, like, a cool place to hang out," Arianna said.

Likewise, Sharon Gsell's three children favor the pool because they say it's the cleanest and their friends are there. But their nanny has used the coupon to take them to other Columbia pools a few times.

The Gsell family likes to go to the River Hill pool on weekends, but "the cars are parked about a half-mile up the road, and there's absolutely no chairs -- it's wall-to-wall people," said Gsell, a River Hill resident who manages a pharmaceutical company. "I can't believe, for a planned community, they thought they only needed one pool."

Crowding at the River Hill pool is even worse on holidays. On July 4, 1999, the pool had to close because it reached its 550-person capacity.

"I definitely have been there when it's insane," River Hill village board Chairwoman Tammy CitaraManis said. "It's just a dot of heads -- bumper-to-bumper people."

CitaraManis, who visits the pool about once a week, said she hasn't seen a "huge difference" in the size of the crowd, but she still thinks the coupons are a good idea. She said her family recently went to the Dickinson pool and was satisfied with its amenities, which she said were like River Hill's, only older.

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