In 2013, the Kaiserman JCC had to make an extremely difficult decision.
The Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, Jewish organization’s extremely popular indoor pool had been housed in an aging 1957 building that required repairs to the roof. But due to strict township building ordinances, bringing the roof up to the current building code would mean tearing the entire building down to its foundation. Unable to justify that significant cost, the Kaiserman JCC board decided to convert the year-round indoor pool to a summer-only outdoor pool.
Recreation and swimming are central to the fabric of the Kaiserman JCC, which is the only Jewish community center in the Philadelphia area, so the ramifications were major. The agency lost 40 percent of its members and was struggling financially. When Amy Krulik joined the organization as CEO in 2017, she knew restoring the pool to year-round service would be critical in her efforts to turning it around.
“There are some communities where swim is an essential part, like breathing,” Krulik says. “This community is one of them. And for us to take this resource out of the mix for the community left many swimmers high and dry. I knew that the pool was going to be a linchpin to our next chapter of success.”
Krulik conducted an exhaustive investigation of her options, considering 63 possible solutions for putting a roof back on the pool. But on a nonprofit’s budget, she couldn’t afford to spend $1.5 million, the cost of some permanent options. “We were looking for an affordable solution and one that would make sense,” she says.
The solution that saved the JCC’s pool came from two surprising sources: a sophisticated high-end event tenting company and 2.5 million Btus of propane-fueled heat.
Heating a high-end tent with propane
In an only-in-the-movies moment, the high-end tent solution first came up during casual chit-chat with a security vendor familiar with EventQuip, the tenting company. Within three days, an EventQuip rep had created CAD drawings of a large tent that could enclose the pool. “We are talking about an affordable, reasonable, spectacular solution that allows me to have both indoor and outdoor swimming,” Krulik says. “Who knew that our pool could hold a standard 70-by-100-foot tent?”
The tent is installed on posts embedded in concrete footers that used about 28 cubic yards of concrete. The frame stays year-round, and the roof is installed in early October and then removed in early May. The JCC leases the tent, which means EventQuip installs, removes, maintains, cleans, and stores it.
The mechanics of the pool itself remain the JCC’s responsibility, so Krulik had to answer another important question, she says: “How does one heat a wedding tent so that people who are in wet bathing suits are not freezing to death?” The pool still has a functioning heater, and by calculating the heat loss from the surface of the pool, Krulik learned that the enclosure would need 2.5 million Btus of heat on the pool deck to keep the air temperature between 80 and 82 degrees.
But Krulik quickly learned she’d have to provide that heat without tapping into the building’s natural gas line. The facility’s existing line didn’t have enough volume to maintain the pressure required to provide that amount of fuel, and running a new line would require up to 2,000 feet of expensive digging.
Seasonal propane heating
This time, it was the local propane company that provided the solution. Instead of natural gas, the heating unit providers suggested propane, a gas solution that can be used anytime natural gas is unavailable. They recommended using a propane company with local relationships, a tip that Krulik says proved to be incredibly helpful. Ted West, Great Valley Propane vice president of sales, had a relationship with the township’s fire marshal and was able to generate specs for a propane storage and fencing setup that met township and commonwealth requirements.
“It was a critical, critical piece of the puzzle because I’m not sure that anybody else would have been able to get that job done for us as quickly, as efficiently, and with no fuss,” Krulik says.
With propane in place, the tent is able to use five heating units, each providing 500,000 Btus of heat. “The propane heat, it doesn’t smell, it’s very clean, and it’s incredibly warm,” Krulik says. “The funny thing for me with the heater is that the kids figured out very quickly that when the blowers come on, it’s like a body-size body dryer.” She knew the heaters were a success when she saw 60 parents and kids hanging out in the pool or on the deck on a Sunday.
“If people feel comfortable enough to just be lounging around on Sunday afternoon and their kids are happy to be in the pool all day, then this has accomplished exactly what we wanted it to accomplish,” Krulik says.
Reviving the JCC’s membership
With the heating question taken care of, the Kaiserman JCC was able to put its year-round pool plan into place. Despite having seen the drawings and visited other tents, Krulik was surprised with how luxurious the tented space felt. “Even I was shocked at how it felt to be on the pool deck in this amazing, spa-like setting,” she says. “We put in a lot of new lighting so that you could swim in the evening when you are not getting any natural light. It is warm and amazing because the propane heat was the perfect solution to getting this done.”
Within the first three months of operating the indoor pool, the JCC received 250 new units of membership, about 65 percent of which were returning members who came back because they could swim year-round. And Krulik receives emails all the time thanking her for bringing back the vital amenity.
Like the YMCA in the Christian community, the JCC is often viewed as the town square of the Jewish community, and the organization strives to make it a welcoming environment for people of any denomination. The pool is an important part of that mission. Teaching your child to swim is even one of the 613 mitzvot — good deeds or commandments in the Jewish faith. “So there really is a total mandate to swim,” Krulik says.
Now heading into its second winter of operation, the year-round pool has completely changed the trajectory of the Kaiserman JCC.
“Putting the pool back into commission made us believe in ourselves and got the community to believe in us,” Krulik says. “And that doesn’t happen every day. I think that when you talk about propane, you don’t always get to say, ‘Hey, you know what? This helps really make a difference to the community and also to the financial bottom line of the JCC.’ Propane played a very critical role in making that happen.”