Commissioners say they aren't in too deep to change planned pool at Premier Park to a 50-meter Olympic-level size.
After more than a dozen Lakewood Ranch area residents attended a July 28 County Commission budget meeting, advocating for a 50-meter swimming pool at the future Premier Park project in Lakewood Ranch, instead of the previously proposed 25-meter pool, a county staff member confirmed such a change is feasible.
Angela Honts, a project manager with the county, said the park’s plan is conceptual and could accommodate an increase in length, with no impact to other facilities.
Those opposed to a smaller pool were pleased.
“We feel the commission listened to the citizens and to the swimmers,” said Panther Ridge’s Maggie Mooney.
County Administrator Scott Hopes said during the commission meeting that altering plans from a 25-meter pool to a 50-meter pool would cost approximately $770,250. He was confident he could work with Interim Chief Financial Officer Sheila McLean to find the money.
Mooney said not only will the pool benefit residents, but it would also be a revenue generating operation.
The county is planning other facilities at Premier Park including an amphitheater, a gymnasium, a baseball and softball complex, a bike track, basketball courts, volleyball courts, clay tennis courts and a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office district office and fleet facility.
The county’s Capital Improvement Plan for fiscal years 2023-2027 has $28.45 million budgeted toward Premier Park’s sports facilities.
Swim community organizes
The commission meeting drew speakers from five families whose children are involved with area swim teams, as well as Samantha Presley, a swim coach with the Sarasota Tsunami Swim Team.
Mooney said her interest began six months ago when she learned about the pool length, due to the investment of her two children, 11-year-old Payton Portale and 8-year-old Teagan Portale, in swimming.
The two children both belong to the Tsunami Swim Team.
Mooney said based on the number of meets the Premier campus attracted for soccer, she was excited by news of a pool until she realized “it was an undersized pool that certainly wouldn’t generate comparable revenues and frankly, would still leave the county with a void of a 50-meter pool.”
She said the push for a longer pool became a collaborative effort involving not only the Tsunami swim team but also others including The Lightning team of the Lakewood Ranch Swim Association. She said a petition had around 1,400 signatures by the time of the meeting.
A 50-meter pool, which is an Olympic-level size, is the standard for competitive swimming. Mooney said practicing for these competitions in a 25-meter pool is difficult because it requires swimmers to become accustomed to performing a flip turn at the wall.
As her girls have progressed in the sport, it has become increasingly difficult to accommodate their swim practices from their home in Panther Ridge. She said they currently swim mainly at John H. Marble Park in Bradenton, a 25-meter pool, but on occasion are able to visit G.T. Bray Recreation Center and Arlington Park & Aquatic Complex in Sarasota, both 50-meter pools.
Mooney said the journey from Willis Elementary to John H. Marble Park involves rush hour traffic.
“It’s stressful for the kids, it’s stressful for parents, but this is a sport that your children love,” she said.
Mill Creek’s Ava DiPasquale spoke to commissioners about her passion for the sport.
“A key to my success is I have been going to Sarasota since April, every opportunity I get, to train, and swim, in the 50-meter pool,” she said. “Swimming has taught me motivation, dedication, time management and how to deal with success and loss.”
Her father, Derek DePasquale, said she ranks among the top five swimmers in the state in the 100-meter butterfly in her age group (10 and under).
Speaking at the commission meeting, Teagan Portale described the journey as “always a hustle,” saying it sometimes made the family late for the practices.
Derek DiPasquale said the DiPasquale family regularly makes 22-mile trips to Arlington in Sarasota.
He said the minimum number of practices required at Ava DiPasquale’s level is five a week.
“The increased gas costs, the time, it’s a tremendous commitment,” he said.
Ava DiPasquale also said the practices are difficult to arrange, with her having to put more effort into finding time for tasks like completing homework, as well as carpooling with other swimmers in order to make the trip.
Former U.S. Olympian and gold medalist (1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, 4×100-meter medley relay), Tripp Schwenk advocated for a larger pool based on what he said were needs for water safety through more pool space.
Commissioners expressed support for a larger pool with some also cautioning residents about the ability to fund the project.
District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said, “I am on board, I will push this,” stating she would flag the project for further review, pointing to her history of advocating for a competition-length pool.
Baugh said she was “all in from day one.”
She also said, “Then, we need to make sure that it is quote, unquote, a Premier Park.”
She said the county has “ample” reserves for the project but needed to confirm whether it was feasible.
At-large Commissioner George Kruse said he thought Premier was an important asset for Manatee County, explaining the Premier Park complex might be competing with, or working in conjunction with, locations such as Robinson Preserve and Nathan Benderson Park.
“I want Premier to be a world-class facility,” he said.
He said he would favor having commissioners and engineers determine the additional costs.
“I don’t want to do something else halfway, especially at that location.”
At-large Commissioner Carol Whitmore called Premier a place where Olympians “would come from all over the world” and described it as a fitting location for a 50-meter pool, while calling for a clearer picture of the cost.
District 1 Commissioner James Satcher said he would support the pool based on the county’s current reserves.
“I am a guy that is in favor of lower taxes whenever possible, but at this point we have this money that is already taken in, and it seems like a smart investment, to make it someplace that people want to come, from other areas.”
Commissioner Kevin van Ostenbridge said the pool at G.T. Bray Recreation Center, which is located in his district, was currently “bursting at the seams,” with county staff dedicated to ensuring sufficient staffing for the numerous high school and college teams using the facility.
He said the board needed to ensure sufficient funding.
Commissioners Reggie Bellamy and Misty Servia also expressed support but described concerns around funding.
According to county records, the pool is currently budgeted at $13.59 million. During the meeting, both Servia and Whitmore expressed interest in using tourist tax to fund the project.
Hopes said based on his research and conversations, the facility needs a 25-meter pool, a warm-up pool, a 50-meter pool, and a therapy pool.
“If we have all that on that complex, I believe people won’t be talking about going to Charlotte County,” Hopes said. “They won’t be talking about going to Orange County. They’ll be talking to go about going to Premier in Lakewood Ranch, the fastest growing community in the country.”
Advocates for the pool said, following the commission meeting, they felt optimistic about the proposal’s future success.
Samantha Presley, a swim instructor with the Tsunami Swim Team, said she found the meeting “very successful.”
“I was pleased to hear the outcomes from the commissioners themselves,” she said. “All of them, from what I’ve heard, were on board. Hopefully, we’re going to get what we want, and find our money for it.”
Central Park’s Catherine Gates, whose 8-year-old daughter Julia Gates belongs to the Lakewood Ranch Lightning, said she felt that the meeting brought positive results for the group.
“Judging by what was said, I think they are on our side,” she said.
She said that a 50-meter pool would be needed in the community at some point, a view which had also been expressed by Kruse.
“If they don’t build it now, they will have to build it later,” she said. “Just build it now and we’ll be out of your hair, and then you can move on.”
Jen DiPasquale said that while the commission emphasized the topic of money, she had spoken at the meeting to emphasize that the pool itself could bring in revenue.
“We were trying to make that point today,” she said. “You build a pool like this? It is going to be an economic driver for the community.”
Mooney said it was the economic factors, and not only the turnout, that led to the success of the advocacy. “It’s not just about people turning out,” she said. “It’s also that this makes sense.”
More steps still await the project before it could be realized.
However, Honts said the project has not yet begun its design phase and, therefore, proposed revisions would be included in the 30% plans submitted at the start of design. She said there could be an increase in design fees, and a design contract change, and that those alterations would require approval by County Commissioners.
Current time estimates, she said, including final design completion in September of 2023, ground-breaking for the project from Dec. 2023 to Jan. 2024, and completion in April 2025.
Honts said in the case a change order to the contract is requested, it could add one to two months to the design completion timeline.
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