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A German revolution down at the neighborhood pool

Ordinary citizens and other private interests are filling in gaps left by a shrinking welfare state.

Mechthild Löwe doesn't need the French Riviera. For years, she has spent her summers at Frankfurt's Brentano Bad.

The outdoor pool, twice the length of a football field and a little wider, is Europe's largest, a haven for avid lap swimmers like Ms. Löwe and one of the city's many publicly funded recreation venues.

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But the pool, one of 13 in Frankfurt, may soon shut down as German cities try to trim costs amid the country's prolonged economic troubles.

The nationwide threat to their Badekultur, or bathing culture, has galvanized Germans. In what could be the start of a revolution in this country's welfare culture, citizens and private interests are taking the initiative as the caretaker state recedes.

"There's a new thinking process in Germany," says Gert Benner, head of one of the first nonprofits in Germany to run a municipal pool.

"We're seeing a huge number of initiatives to keep our pools open, and they're driven by people, not by the government's bureaucracy," he says. "It's a key step."

Public pools are among many services, from libraries to day care, that are being curtailed as German municipalities cope with falling employment, and dwindling tax revenues and investment.

To pick up the slack, nonprofit groups have been formed to run pools, and in other cases, partnerships between cities and private management have sprung up, or corporations have taken over operating pools for profit.

Similar private-sector initiatives are being launched in other areas where cities can no longer foot the bill. In the town of Gütersloh, 217 miles west of Berlin, a nonprofit is partnering with the city to manage the library. Frankfurt's Museum of Modern Art has become one of the first museums in the country to aggressively start fundraising to pay for exhibits.

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"People have to take more responsibility," says Franz-Reinhard Habbel of the German Association of Cities and Communities in Berlin. "There's no other way. Cities are broke."

Germans see their 6,716 Volksbäders, or "people's pools" as essential to the public welfare. Although the country's bathing culture has a long tradition, it wasn't until the construction boom after World War II, in the mid-'60s, that pools multiplied across Germany. Cities rushed to build the biggest and best indoor and outdoor pools, where bathers of all social strata could afford to take a dip in style. The venues include Olympic-size, diving, wave, and kiddie pools that form the centerpiece of municipal recreational parks.

But now many of these are in dire need of repair. German cities, collectively $10 billion in debt, have been shutting down pools rather than pay million-dollar repair bills. Since 1994, when Germany had 3,550 outdoor pools, almost 10 percent have closed, according to the German Public Pool Association in Essen.

A success story

When Mr. Benner's hometown pool in Schwerte, a town near Cologne, was shut down, his response was more American than German. He gathered 10,000 signatures, pulled together hundreds of volunteers and created a nonprofit organization. They raised money. They dug in. And in 1998, three years after the closure, they reopened the facility, which includes an Olympic-size pool and two beach-volleyball areas in a large park.

This summer, the Schwerte pool had a record attendance of 120,000 people. The entrance fees have remained at the previous rate of $3 for adults - considerable reasonable here - with children over 11 paying half price and those under 11 swimming for free. Benner is among 120 volunteers who tend the cash register, take out the trash, clean the pool, and raise money for pool maintenance.

In Königswinter, near Bonn, a corporation suggested having the pool stay open longer, opening a restaurant, and offering classes to the elderly and toddlers as ways to make the pool more attractive. The pool reopened and the admission fees remain a moderate $3.

In Rengsdorf, a small town near Frankfurt, a firm bought for 50 cents a pool that, over the decades, had sunk into about $3 million in debt, and invested heavily to turn it into a wellness complex with whirlpools, waterslides, and saunas. The admission fee doubled, but attendance is at a record high. The company is making money.

Whether Frankfurt's grass-roots effort can help the Brentano Bad stay open remains to be seen.

The pool alone needs $5 million in repairs, city officials say. And the 37-acre Brentano park - where families spend Sundays picnicking, youths play volleyball, and kids frolic on the playgrounds - is also in danger of closing.

Löwe is among 16,000 people who have signed a petition to save Brentano. "It's the only place in Frankfurt where everybody can find a spot without feeling crowded," she says.

Privatization questioned

The trend toward privatization is not without its detractors, however. Frankfurters have been signing petitions in protest of what they see as the dangerous effects of shifting traditionally publicly funded services to the private sector. One of the city's two opera houses is scheduled to close in 2004. Some libraries are threatened. And the Frankfurt subway system is about to be leased to a US investor.