At its peak, the Rotary Club of Ardmore had some 130 members. These days the number is about 70, but Dave Dillon, a past president of the old club, said he refuses to believe it’s the economy that’s driving membership down. A friend of his at a Lehigh Valley Rotary told him that numbers there are actually up, Dillon said last week, at the club’s weekly luncheon in the Merion Cricket Club.
It was a festive atmosphere, as the oppressive humidity of this week had not yet descended. A savory buffet with jumbo shrimp beckoned from steam tables as members milled about, grabbing glasses of iced tea and taking their seats with white tablecloths.
The club also swore in its newest president, Christian Hoyt, on that day, and hosted guest speaker Zach Stalberg, former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News who is now president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia government watchdog group.
Hoyt, who is the CEO of PayUSA in King of Prussia, took over July 1 in his new role leading the Ardmore Rotarians.
“We usually get pretty impressive speakers,” said Dillon, a Rosemont dentist. “We’ve had Ed Rendell a couple times, Jack Bogle [founder of The Vanguard Group] ... Maybe half the speakers are talking about something having to do with Rotary, either a function of the club or something that someone is doing elsewhere in the world.” About 10 percent are entertainers, even singers, he said.
“I think we made decisions to get a mean and lean group,” Dillon said. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to see enrollment increase.
Rotary International has relaxed its membership criteria in recent years, he said. An attendance requirement has been brought down to 60 percent of meetings, for example, from 70 percent. It also used to be that a member must own his or her own business, or otherwise be a “professional.” That’s no longer the case.
So it comes down to affordability: time and money. Standing, as we were, in the midst of the exclusive Merion Cricket Club—about as Philadelphia Story as you can get these days—and surrounded by the stretch of Montgomery Avenue private schools and the overall wealth of the Main Line, the money part of the equation seems pretty doable for the denizens of the hundreds of million-dollar homes nearby. An $1,800 check covers Rotary International dues, the club’s lunches and the minimum contributions expected of members.
Stalberg: A 'Stake in Our World'
Worldwide, Rotary International claims on its web site it has more than 1.2 million business, professional, and community leaders. Through about 33,000 clubs in more than 200 countries, Rotarians “provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace.” The clubs are nonpolitical, nonreligious, and “open to all cultures, races, and creeds.”
In that sense, Stalberg was an ideal choice as a speaker. Like Rotary, the Committee of Seventy is more than 100 years old, and touts itself as “fiercely nonpartisan,” and Stalberg said he is “neither a Republican nor a Democrat.”
Stalberg, who lives in Lower Merion Township and put his children through its schools, said the Committee of Seventy’s job is to better Philadelphia government, with the goal of making the entire region more attractive to outside interests.
“Whether you’re living in Montgomery County as I do, or working out here, you’ve got a little stake in our world” of Philly policy and politics, he said.
Stalberg recalled his first experience with the group at a public function—a reception at the 2005 Philadelphia Flower Show—where he met a “tiny nun” who asked him what he did for a living.
“I said, ‘I run a group that’s trying to improve politics and eliminate corruption in government in Philadelphia’ ... and she crossed herself,” he said, getting a big laugh from the luncheon crowd. “That was my introduction to this job.”
One Rotarian asked Stalberg what he has been most proud of accomplishing since taking over at the Committee in 2005. He responded by saying it was his group’s battle with the city’s controversial “DROP” program, or the Deferred Retirement Option Program.
“We’re still fighting to kill it. For me it was a personal best. Testifying before City Council it was the first time I was booed by the people siting in the chambers [there,] because they were all city employees, and they want to keep this perk. I think in the end, it’s gonna go. … But it could easily take a couple more years.”
The Committee started to take on DROP in 2008, he said—a lesson in how long it takes to get things accomplished at that level of government, especially compared to his former job at a daily newspaper. The Committee’s interest in DROP affected change on the state level and eventually in the city, saving a lot of money and changing the face of City Council: members lost their seats over the issue, notably longtime Councilman Frank Rizzo, Jr.
“More importantly, it drew attention to the pension problem,” he said. “As pensions have pretty much disappeared from the private sector, there hasn’t been much change in the pubic sector. Philadelphia is a city in economic trouble and fully half of the problem with the city budget is the cost of underwriting” pensions.
Asked about the overall state of the city, Stalberg said it’s tough to generalize, but that Mayor Michael Nutter, while being a “smart guy, a decent guy” is also a “lousy manager.”
“He ran promising reform, but really has gotten very timid about that,” Stalberg said. “City Council has been pretty bad ... there is some potential in the people who look like they’re making their way up through the system [when] they are elected in November.”
Though he has no personal political party affiliation, in the interest of competition being a healthy thing for all, Stalberg said he’s encouraged by some Republicans starting to make their way toward public office in the city, with the ability to make “a real second party, something that hasn’t existed in 60 years.”
Dillon recalled his time as president, two years ago, as an example of the Rotary Club of Ardmore’s work—raising and dispersing roughly $90,000, “ranging from water projects in Afghanistan and Africa, to Haiti earthquake relief” to local betterment projects. About $10,000 went to Rotary International’s signature project: stamping out polio around the world.
That year, about $40,000 went to the Garden for the Blind at the Wynnewood Valley Park. And like every year, the club gave out $10,000 to local nonprofits, such as Serendipity Day Camp for kids (at Haverford College), the Main Line YMCA in Ardmore, Surrey Services for Seniors, ElderNet of Lower Merion and Narberth, and others.
Dillon said the club usually donates between $7,000 and $10,000 to the Merion Fire Co. of Ardmore.