Slow donations could close Cove park

MARTINSBURG – Dripping with water near the Morrisons Cove Memorial Park pool Thursday, 10-year-old Adalyn Smith imagined a summer without the borough’s nearly century-old park complex.

“I would just sit around because I’d have nothing to do,” she said. “I come here all the time.”

If the nonprofit park’s finances continue to decline at their present pace, board members said recently, children and families could soon lose access to its pool, its tree-covered playgrounds and its indoor facilities. Money has been tight for a long time, they said, but declining donations could ultimately threaten its existence.

“I’ve been (on the park board) for 14 years. This is probably the worst that I’ve seen it,” said Andrew Ritchey, general manager of Ritchey’s Dairy.

Ritchey and others on the board said they’ve tried to cut costs – they eliminated the executive director position in late spring – but nothing has sealed the disparity between budgeted donations and funds received.

In the 2012-13 fiscal year, the park’s $559,000 budget included $105,000 in hoped-for donations, but the park took in only $63,000 over the year, according to board figures. To date since fall 2013, $94,000 in planned donations has been filled by only $81,000.

“There’s a whole slew of reasons. There’s no one problem that you can say it’s X, Y or Z,” said Andy Blattenberger, a Martinsburg attorney and the park board’s secretary.

Since the 1920s, the Memorial Park has been operated as a nonprofit, owned officially by the people of Morrisons Cove. Unlike similar parks in most of Blair County, it isn’t municipally controlled and receives no direct taxpayer money.

Park officials can charge for access to the swimming pool, bowling alley and roller rink, they said, but those charges sometimes only cover insurance expenses or chip away at major costs like heating.

With Martinsburg’s library on the premises and a range of indoor and outdoor sports sites scattered across the grounds, the Memorial Park is unlike most venues even in larger boroughs and cities.

But its size makes the park’s bankruptcy backup plan – turning to Martinsburg Borough control – untenable in the long run, board members and Martinsburg Council President Connie Lamborn said.

“It has financial problems now, when it belongs to how many communities. It’s going to be a bigger financial problem when it belongs to the borough,” Lamborn said. “And that is a concern.”

The park isn’t particularly deep in debt, Blattenberger said, but it’s already operating on two lines of credit. When those credit lines reach their limit, he said, there’s little the board can do but wrap up operations and turn the site over to Martinsburg.

Dwindling use has taken its toll, he said: Where Cove families in decades past would flock to the park for sports and relaxation, greater mobility and wider range of childhood sports means they travel farther afield. Cash sources that propped the park up long ago, like cafeteria rental from the Spring Cove School District, dried up long ago, never to be replaced, Blattenberger said.

Even wedding receptions in the banquet hall have dropped off, he noted. A 2012 policy change to allow alcohol at receptions did little to raise interest.

With paid activity less popular than it once was, the park relies increasingly on donations even as the board cuts expenses and “streamlines jobs,” as Blattenberger said. A highly public campaign, perhaps modeled on a similar, successful push in the Pittsburgh suburb of Dormont, could push finances back into the black, he said.

In the mid-2000s, the “Save Our Pool” campaign in Dormont attracted massive community support, with protests, street collection cans and even bar-crawl fundraisers gathering tens of thousands of dollars that ultimately preserved the community pool.

While bar crawls would be impossible in the famously dry Cove, a rally of public support might save the park, he said. While a June spaghetti dinner raised nearly $8,000 and a planned Aug. 3 $20-per-ticket bingo night could raise thousands more, park officials will need more than occasional gatherings to keep finances afloat, they said.

“I think (community members) just can’t believe it would ever go under,” Lamborn of the Martinsburg council said. “They’re just hearing ‘cry wolf,’ I think. But one day it’s going to be serious.”

The park board has considered alternatives, but none are certain to work: They could open the land to soccer leagues or turn a portion into a bike park, Ritchey said, but those could cost more before they made any money.

Leasing a portion of the land is possible, as well, Blattenberger said. If the park reverts to borough control, it would likely be sold anyway, board members noted.

It’s not clear just when the Memorial Park’s coffers could dry up completely, or when their credit might be exhausted. A strong summer finish at the pool is needed to push the park through the September doldrums, Ritchey said.

Mandy Smith, standing alongside her daughter poolside Thursday, said she can imagine the day when the park closes its doors.

“I wouldn’t count it out. Lots of things close – why not this?” she said. “But I hope not. I’d miss it.”