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.”

Breaking News: Pool Fundraiser Reaches Goal to Construct New Facility

The Underwood Pool Building Committee has reached its fundraising goal of $388,000 to meet the lowest bid to construct the new Underwood Pool complex, according to Ellen Schreiber, the committee member who headed the fundraising drive.

“This will allow the Underwood Pool Building Committee to award the construction contract and get started on the project ASAP, following the expected acceptance of the donations by the Belmont Board of Selectmen. The contractor has said that, if the winter weather cooperates, he will try to have the pool ready for next summer,” said Schreiber.

The fundraiser was started in September after a general contractor withdrew a bid within the Committee’s $4.2 million budget to construct a new two-pool complex to replace the current 102-year-old facility at Cottage Street and Concord Avenue. The next lowest bid came in at $4.6 million.

The fundraiser was given a considerable boost after the Belmont Savings Bank Foundation, the charitable offshoot of the Belmont Savings Bank, gave the committee a $200,000 grant in September.

The full story will be available after 1:30 p.m. 

Underwood Pool Fundraiser Hits $300K, But Still a Ways to Go

There is a saying that goes: It’s not how you start, but how you finish.

That’s how Ellen Schreiber views the fundraising effort she is heading for the Underwood Pool Building Committee to secure $200,000 from residents and businesses in just under five weeks that will allow construction to begin on a new Underwood Pool.

In just over a fortnight, the campaign – which began after the low bidding construction company set to build the $4.16 million project backed out at the last minute leaving the town nearly $400,000 short of the new low bid of $4.55 million – has raised nearly three-quarters of the goal, in large part to a $200,000 matching grant from the Belmont Savings Bank Foundation to go along with nearly $100,000 in contributions large and small, Schreiber told the Belmontonian.

But Schreiber, a veteran campaigner who co-led the major town-wide undertaking to build a new Joey’s Park adjacent to the Winn Brook Elementary School, is far from complacent. In a question and answer with the Belmontonian, Schreiber said she is gearing up for a sustained final push to secure the needed funding to replace the existing 102-year-old structure and secure a summer swimming season in 2015.


Belmontonian: You wrote in an recent email that in the first week of the fundraising effort for the new Underwood Pool fundraising raised $93,000, just under half of what needs to be raised to meet the $400,000 goal. Were you expecting such as hopeful response to building the new pool complex?

Schreiber: I am very excited by the response of the Belmont community to the fundraising effort for the New Underwood Pool. I have never seen donations come in so quickly for a fundraising project of this size. I think it shows how much Belmont residents care about the pool. At this point, including the Belmont Savings Bank Foundation matching grant, we’ve crossed the $300,000 threshold, but there is still a lot of money to raise.

Belmontonian: Could you break down in percentage between large – $1,000 and greater – and the smaller donations? What is the total number of donators? How many businesses have donated?

Schreiber: We have received pledges and checks from more than 250 Belmont residents. From my fundraising experience, the donation amounts seem to be higher than typical. I think people understand the fundraising goal and short timeframe and have responded by doing everything they can to help meet the goal. You couldn’t raise this amount of money without some large donations plus many smaller donations, and we’ve gotten a lot of both.

Belmontonian: There has been a great initial response from residents and businesses. How do you keep up the enthusiasm so the goal can be reached by the Oct. 30 deadline?

Schreiber: Communication! It is very important to keep people in the loop. The closer we get, the more enthusiasm we all have. So far, the response has been incredible, but we’re not done yet. We want to begin building the pool while we still have great weather. So for people who are considering a donation, sooner is better.

Belmontonian: How will you be reaching out to the community for funds?

Schreiber: We are trying every way we can to reach Belmont residents and let them know about the fundraising campaign. This really is a viral campaign – some people are sending emails to their friends, some are sending letters, some are talking it up. And of course, we’re trying to get the word out through the press. It seems to me that the word is out, based on the response we’ve been getting.

Belmontonian: Is it more efficient to court businesses and high-income individuals to raise the remaining funds or can you meet the goal with smaller contributions?

Schreiber: I think it is important to give everyone the opportunity to make a difference. You can’t raise money for a project like this if there is not widespread community support, and that is clearly demonstrated by the response – both in numbers of donors and size of donations. This pool belongs to everyone in Belmont; we all have a crucial role to play.

It’s great to have the opportunity to help our community replace a treasured Belmont gathering place. Clearly, there is broad support for the pool, including young families and empty nesters, homeowners who are new to Belmont and those who grew up here, residents who use the pool and those who don’t.

The pool means so much to me – I’ve watched my kids grow up there. And I spoke with a donor yesterday whose parents first met at the Underwood Pool and his now grown children spent lots of time there. The pool brings us together and builds community for kids and adults, and it helps make Belmont the town we love.

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