Manatee County's reduction of Tsunami swim team's afternoon practices at John Marble Park highlights area's lack of aquatic facilities.
While the loss of pool time at John Marble Park has angered the organizers of the SRQ Tsunami Swim Team, it also has brought to light the lack of public pools in East County.
Parents and coaches of the SRQ Tsunami, such as head coach Ira Klein, are unhappy with Manatee County's decision to bump the Tsunami out of John Marble Pool three afternoons per week to make room for the Lakewood Ranch Lightning swim team.
The Lakewood Ranch Lightning needed to find a second home when Lakewood Ranch Country Club was forced to place restrictions (the number of available lanes was reduced to protect members from being too close) on its pool usage due to COVID-19. That meant the Lightning, which has almost 90 swimmers and also has a wait list of another 70 who want to join the program, would have reduced pool availability.
For the Lightning, the only choice to regain some of that time, at least in terms of a public pool, would be going to John Marble Park.
Lightning coach Steve Lubrino reached out to the county Oct. 7 to inquire about reserving practice times for his recreational program at John Marble Park. Lubrino explained to county officials that the John Marble Park pool was the only one in the county system that would be close enough to Lakewood Ranch to allow the team to function, since most of his swimmers are from that area and would be attending the program after school. He also told county officials that the pool at G.T. Bray Park on the west side of the county was a nice facility, but simply too far away.
Charlie Hunsicker, the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources director, said his staff met with Lubrino Oct. 26 and made a decision the next day to give the Lightning three four-hour blocks (3-7 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday) at John Marble Park.
But that meant the SRQ Tsunami, which had used John Marble Park the previous two years and Manatee County pools for more than 10 years, would have its schedule altered.
Manatee County offered the Tsunami additional time at G.T. Bray Pool, which has been the Tsunami’s secondary pool in Manatee County, as well as all weekday mornings at Marble.
Klein said the afternoon slots are more valuable because they are more convenient for his swimmer and their families. He said his team members have built their schedules around afternoon practices a G.T. Bray. His competitive program had practiced at John Marble Park from 3-6:30 p.m. every weekday.
While Hunsicker understood the inconvience, he said the county felt the Tsunami, which already runs practices out of G.T. Bray along with pools in Sarasota, could adjust more easily than the Lightning.
“That was our goal, to try to make it as equitable as possible,” Hunsicker said.
Hunsicker said he understands that Klein is disappointed because his team has done business with the county for more than 10 years and he knows Klein believes they county and the Tsunami have forged a longtime relationship. However, Hunsicker said, "My answer to that is none of our facilities are solely for the use of any particular party.”
Klein said he is upset because the county did not notify him of the situation until after a decision was made. He felt his team deserved more respect after a 10-year partnership with the county during which Klein says the Tsunami has paid Manatee “well over $100,000.”
“They never talked to me,” Klein said. “They talked to the Lightning. But they didn't sit me down. I mean, I understand it's another program from the county. ... [They] never asked me though, how does that affect us? It was just, ‘Well, we got another group that wants three of your days. So you get Tuesday, Thursday, and the rest of the time, you have to shift all your people all the way over to G.T. Bray.’”
“When you start with having all the time, and a new team wants to get some time, there wasn't much of a middle ground there,” Hunsicker countered. “I didn't see much cause in sitting two of them down in a room, locking the door, and coming out the other side with everyone agreeing with the schedule. … This wasn't mediation in a court of law. I needed to make the decision.”
Hunsicker and Manatee County Aquatics Manager Brittany Stokes said the county gives local swim teams generous rates to use its pools. The county charges $60 per hour to use the entire pool (or $30 to use half of it). Hunsicker said it would cost much more if a team wanted to secure exclusive use of a pool, especially considering the county’s current lack of pool space.
The county is limited to Marble and Bray while it continues to work on projects at Lincoln Park and at Premier Sports Campus.
“You can’t pour five gallons into a one-gallon bucket,” Hunsicker said. “So we need more buckets. We need more pools.”
Klein said the decision has already had an adverse impact on his team. He had about 70 swimmers at Marble before the decision and now his team has 55 left who are able to practice at both G.T. Bray, which is 8 miles from John Marble, and John Marble.
Stokes and Hunsicker noted that two years ago, the Tsunami squad swam exclusively out of Bray. They also said some angry parents from the western side of Manatee County reached out to them after the Tsunami moved from Bray to Marble, believing the county must have been behind the decision. However, Klein said only three or four of his current swimmers who were practicing at Marble are from western Manatee County.
Klein said he has talked about merging the programs with Lightning organizers in the past without luck. He said Lightning parents want their kids to remain in a recreational program, as opposed to a more competitive one like the Tsunami.
Lubrino said he is not aware of any such conversations, although he said the Lightning's board deals with those kind of issues.
Unfortunately, Hunsicker has said it could take 10 years to build an aquatics center at Premier, so it doesn't appear the rapidly growing area will get any public pools soon.
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said a higher priority needs to be put on building a public pool in East County in the near future.
"It is ridiculous that we can spend $30 million ($32.5 million to buy 161 acres from Musgrave Real Estate Holdings at the corner of State Road 64 and Lena Road) just to build buildings to put staff in that we really don't need at this moment, but yet we don't have the money to take care of our residents to have children swim on the swim teams," Baugh said. "So to me, that tells me that the aquatic center at Premier needs to be started almost immediately."