One of my most cherished summertime rituals is the late afternoon swim at the Underwood Pool. Come 4 PM on a hot, summer afternoon, I step back from the computer, grab my swim bag and walk down to the Underwood and swim some laps in the cool water.
True: it’s not a perfect setting for lap swimming. You’re almost certain to stop mid-stroke as a child scoots across your lane. Passing thunderstorms may cut your workout short. But the fringe benefits of Underwood Pool are substantial. Hanging on the side of the pool, or lounging on the grass, you catch up with friends and neighbors. Your ears ring with the laughter of children, punctuated by the “sprung” of the diving board and the splash of cannonballs. Most of all: you glimpse the amazing panoply of our town: people of all ages, ethnicities and income levels gathered together to pass a hot afternoon in the oasis of a public pool.
What’s also worth considering is how close our town came to not having this critical public amenity and gathering space. Indeed, Underwood almost wasn’t.
Roll back the clock a bit more than a decade and a prevailing opinion among Belmont’s political class was that the best course forward was to allow the aging Underwood Pool to die, and never replace it. As I noted in a 2008 post on Blogging Belmont, the DPW at the time was warning that the pool facility didn’t have long to live. Upkeep and investment in the Underwood -like so many other capital projects – had been deferred for years. At a March meeting that year, Warrant Committee member Liz Allison stated that the long term strategy for the Underwood should be to “wait until it dies, and then leave it empty.” Four years later, in 2012, Underwood’s dire state prompted an article at Boston.com. But here in town, there had been little more than talk about revitalizing the pool.
Soon enough, however, things started to change. What happened? For one thing, Belmont voters adopted the Community Preservation Act in November of 2010 – a critical measure that provided both local and state money for parks, recreation, historic preservation and affordable housing. Indeed, as Ellen Schreiber points out, the Underwood Pool – the country’s oldest, public outdoor pool – was the poster child for local passage of the CPA.
Ultimately, the CPA provided $2 million in local and state funds towards the $5.2 million reconstruction of the pool. Belmont voters also passed a $3.2 million debt exclusion to fund reconstruction of the facility in April, 2014. And then, critically, Town residents and businesses raised $388,000 in private money that September after the developer selected to build the pool withdrew and Belmont was forced to go with the next lowest bid. That included $200,000 in private donations and a $200,000 matching grant from Belmont Savings Bank. The groundbreaking for the new pool was in November of that year.
Why recount this history? Because there are many more Underwoods out there in Belmont right now: civic institutions that are languishing and public facilities (like our library and skating rink) that are teetering on the edge of collapse and need revitalization. And today, also, there are those in our community who argue against these investments. They say that the cost isn’t worth it and – as Ms. Allison argued for the Underwood Pool – the smart course is to do nothing: perhaps look for private funding and, failing that, allow these public spaces to close, leaving residents to fend for themselves.
The Underwood Pool is an ever-present reminder of how wrong-headed and short sighted such thinking is. Underwood is proof of the amazing dividends that our community reaps from even modest investments in our shared, public spaces. Building, preserving and investing in the places that bring us together as a community makes Belmont stronger, healthier and – by the measures that matter most – richer, as well.