Children bolted off the Ash Park jungle gym as an ice cream truck pulled up on Coatesville's Third Avenue on a pleasant afternoon this month.
On their way to the street, little sneakers stomped through wood chips. Flanking one side of the playground, "Hope" and "Dream" were written on a concrete path in colorful chalk.
But on the other side, a metal fence surrounded an empty swimming pool covered by a green tarp.
"That pool looks gross," one girl said.
Another summer, another hot spell, another season without a pool for thousands of youngsters in Coatesville and elsewhere in the region.The Ash Park pool closed two years ago; the only other one, at Palmer Park, hasn't been open for at least a decade.
City Councilwoman Linda Lavender-Norris said neighboring towns don't have public pools, and some of their youngsters relied on the Ash and Palmer Park pools.
Keeping pools afloat is a challenge for the city's budget, some Coatesville officials say.
With a median household income of $34,716, Coatesville is the poorest municipality in one of the state's wealthiest counties and has one of the region's highest local property tax rates. Once a booming steel city, it's been struggling to revitalize for decades. The 2008 recession only worsened Coatesville's plight.
Last year, an economic development firm was hired to help attract businesses, but the town has store after store housed in rundown buildings or shuttered.
Officials argue the city has priorities that rank above public pools. But according to a Brandywine Health Foundation report titled City of Coatesville Parks 2021, published in August, more than 80 percent of Coatesville residents surveyed think fixing community pools is an important or very important issue.
While Lavender-Norris said she was heartened to see that the community is passionate about the problem, she warns there's no quick fix for the Ash Park pool, which has not been renovated since 1972.
She estimated that Coatesville had spent about $60,000 annually to keep the Ash Park pool open.
"We were cash-strapped," she said. "We didn't have a lot of options."
One summer the city spent about $90,000 on pool repairs, Lavender Norris said, and charged only $1 a day to swim.
Pushing her 4-month-old in a stroller, Shequita Bell, 27, said she never thought about the importance of a public pool until she had a child.
Her cousin Kevetta Bell, 28, who has several young children, said her kids used to play at the pool all day every day in the summer. Now, they complain constantly about having nowhere nearby to go and cool off.
"That's the only thing the kids had to do," Kevetta Bell said, besides walking across town to the "stupid splash pad."
The city installed the aforementioned splash pad — a play area with sprinklers and fountains — along the Riverwalk Brandywine Creek Trail in 2012. But Bell said the children aren't big fans. It's not the same, they say, as having a pool in the neighborhood.
Sitting in the shade of a covered picnic area, Jeremy Peterson, 44, who lives within walking distance of Ash Park, said he wished the council had reached out to the community right away to let people know how they could help restore Ash Park.
To him, the issue speaks to a general prosperity in the region that has bypassed Coatesville. He said he thinks the city chooses to ignore the problem.
"Everything's shutting down around you and [the city] just isn't going to say anything about it," Peterson said. "The pool is an issue, but it has to do with everything."
City activist Alphonso Newsuan said he's met with city officials to discuss how the community can help. Last week he started a GoFundMe page where residents can raise money to repair the Ash Park pool.
Lavender-Norris said the city plans for a splash pad to be installed at Palmer Park, hopefully by next summer.
But Newsuan wants to see the Ash Park pool reopened by then, he said.