Saving Underwood: How a Big Push and Small Donations Preserved a Belmont Amenity

On a sunny autumn afternoon this week, a mom and a banker proudly stood before a fundraising message on a sandwich board to complete a small community miracle.

Sandrick Road’s Ellen Schreiber (the mom) and Robert “Bob” Mahoney (the banker) met in front of the Belmont Savings Bank in Belmont Center on Wednesday, Oct. 8, to place a final sticker to the chart showing the level of support for a fundraising appeal to build the new Underwood Pool.

“We Did It!” read the sticker.

In less than four weeks, the persistence of a master fundraiser and the welcomed kick-off contribution from the home-town bank resulted in $400,000 being raised from residents and businesses to allow a well-loved town amenity to continue at the corner of Concord Avenue and Cottage Street.

It wasn’t all that long ago when, for a few days in late August, it appeared the future of Belmont’s new Underwood Pool was far from certain.

After Woburn-based Seaver Construction withdrew its $3.8 million offer on Aug. 28 to construct the $4.16 million new two pool complex on the site of the historic 102-year-old “swimming pond,” the Underwood Pool Building Committee – the public group that coordinated the new facility’s final design and its detailed budget – was faced with one of two prospects to save the project.

One was to find an extra $400,000 in less than a month (the town was required to select a winning bid on Sept. 26) to match the $4.55 million offer from new low bidder, New England Builders and Contractors, Inc.,

The other, take its chances and resubmit the design to bid with the outside chance a contractor would take on the job at or below budget.

If a solution could not be found, it was likely the pool’s design would need to be greatly altered, or the entire process scrapped, a situation Committee President Anne Paulsen described as “grim news.”

The only certainty was that there wouldn’t be a summer swimming season at the Underwood for the first time since 1912. By the first week of September, the new Underwood Pool – which Town Meeting members and residents voted to support with $5.2 million in public funds – appeared to be hanging on a thread.

In the end, the committee decided to toss the dice and see if it could raise the nearly $400,000 in just under four weeks.

A pair of fortunate choices

As the project’s fate appeared sketchy, two fortunate decisions were made that would change the pool’s destiny. The first was selecting Schreiber to lead the fundraising task.

After a career as a software engineer, Schreiber was co-founder of the Boston Children’s Chorus, campaign manager for State Senator Will Brownsberger, and is now the finance director for a non-profit organization. Schreiber is best known around these parts as being the driving force with Diane Miller in rebuilding Joey’s Park adjacent to the Winn Brook School, raising more than $450,000 and recruiting more than 2,000 volunteers for a nine-day community build.

If you’re looking to get something done, Schreiber will be a good person to head it.

“Ellen is the perfect person for the job,” said Paulsen.

But even for someone who is accustomed to cultivating funds, the initial time limit and amount required was a challenge, said Schreiber.

“It was a lot of money to raise and we had a very short deadline. It was very intimidating, at first,” she said.

Schreiber and the committee caught a break early on when New England Builders agreed to keep its $4.55 million bid open for an additional month, until Oct. 30, providing some breathing room needed to raise the money.

The next fortunate decision was who Schreiber decided to visit first. Following the advice of Willie Sutton, Schreiber headed to where they keep the money. In Belmont, that’s 2 Leonard St., to talk to the man in charge of Belmont’s oldest and one of its largest institutions.

Since becoming President and CEO in June 2010, Bob Mahoney has transformed Belmont Savings Bank from a sleepy depositors-owned institution to a growing stock-issuing regional institution, doubling its asset size to $1.2 billion while expanding its retail operations into three nearby communities through its Star/Shaw’s supermarket branches.

Mahoney had read news reports about the pool committee losing its low bidder and the predicament it and the town found itself.

“I started thinking about it and even sent a note to the town’s Treasurer [Floyd Carman] with some ideas to bridge the gap,” said Mahoney.

Then in a moment of Kismet, Schreiber called Mahoney the next day.

“She said they were trying to pass the hat to raise $400,000, and she wanted to come over and talk to me,” Mahoney recalled.

In another coincidence, the board of the bank’s community and charitable entity, the Belmont Savings Bank Foundation, was meeting the next morning. When he brought up his conversation with Schreiber and the position the town was facing, many on the board began recalling their memories of visiting the pool. A senior member told how his father, who was a lifeguard, and mother, a swim team member met at the Underwood.

“That’s where I said, ‘I think we need to take a leadership role because [the pool] effects so many people.’ Then we started talking numbers,” said Mahoney.

How about $25,000? Somebody raised the figure to $100,000.

Going all in

As a poker player sitting on a good hand, Mahoney decided to go “all in” by upping the ante to $200,000.

“I said if we want to be serious about getting this done, we needed that amount because there was not enough time to raise $300,000,” said Mahoney.

But $200,000 is something that can be done,” said Mahoney, noting the foundation – which receives its funding from stock shares it holds bought at bank’s initial public offering in 2011 – could contribute the amount since the bank stock has risen significantly.

“It’s a way of sharing the bank’s success with the town,” he said.

In one fell swoop, the fundraiser goal facing Schreiber was cut in half.

“The bank came through for us,” said Schreiber. “From my experience, this amount was unprecedented, unheard of.”

Just as important, the bank’s contribution was seen by many donors as a vote of confidence in the Underwood project and the fundraising campaign.

“It got us half way there and so people immediately became excited. It was a powerful statement because [reaching the $400,000 goal] was now a possibility,” said Schreiber.

With Belmont Savings’ financial and business backing, Schreiber did what she does best; convincing people to join “something special.”

The money started rolling in from all directions, more than 400 donations ranging from $10 to $25,000.

“No one gives money to something they don’t care about and clearly they cared about the Underwood pool. People sent notes with their checks and told about their memories, how their children learned to swim there, how they love the fact that the town has a facility anyone can come to,” said Schreiber.

Within three weeks after the bank’s contribution, Schreiber and Mahoney were able to come together to put their stamp (or sticker) on the success of their collaboration.

“It turned out to be a perfect fit for the bank,” said Mahoney. “The donation is what we are about and what the town needed, all coming at right time and the right amount.”

Schreiber looked back at the effort preserving outdoor summer swimming in Belmont more succinctly.

“People just gave from their hearts.”

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Comments

  1. Maryann Scali says

    I learned how to swim at the Underwood Pool. So did my 3 children.
    It is wonderful to drive by and see so many people enjoying our town treasure.

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