Central Park resident Julie Santiago stood on Field 22 at Premier Sports Campus, and watched her daughter, Jenna, play against a team from California on Dec. 6 during the Nike International Friendlies and Development Academy Winter Showcase.
A lifelong swimmer, Santiago wasn’t thinking about soccer, though. She was focused on aquatics.
“I’m watching all these (soccer) teams from all over the country and I’m thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had this for the sport of swimming?’” Santiago said.
Within the next five years, that dream might come true.
On Dec. 7, Manatee County commissioners approved the purchase of Premier Sports Campus for $5.2 million from Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. The purchase includes the 127-acre Premier campus and its facilities, as well as the addition of 36 acres immediately north of the campus. Terms of the deal require Manatee County to build an aquatics center within five years.
County officials have not added a pool to the county’s capital improvement plan, but Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker said the project will be incorporated in the county’s master parks plan, which is under development.
The future aquatics center will serve the eastern quadrant of the county, but the scope and size will be determined at a later time, based on need and funding.
“It will be something to serve the needs of the community over time,” Hunsicker said.
Hunsicker said he does not expect the county to build an aquatics complex with an Olympic-sized pool, but it could be a possibility.
“We’re not sure we need that,” Hunsicker said. “To do more in that direction — that’s a $20 million project. Pools set up that way are more extensive and costly than what we typically build (in Manatee County).”
Manatee County commissioners this year committed to constructing an aquatics center at Lincoln Park in Palmetto. The facility could cost about $3 million and include a pool for recreational and competitive swimming and a separate therapy pool.
Hunsicker said he is confident the pool design at Premier will allow for high school competition, swimming lessons and pool therapy programs.
Operational costs, including maintenance and staffing, for a pool facility would cost the county about $400,000 a year, Hunsicker said. About half that cost would be recovered from fees, such as for lessons or special events.
In terms of aquatics, local swim coaches say the practice and competitive lanes are sorely needed.
Coach Ira Klein of the Sarasota Tsunami, which has more than 220 swimmers, said there are about 104 swim lanes available for public use within Sarasota and Manatee counties. Of those, only 34 are in Manatee County.
Sarasota’s YMCA Selby Aquatics Center offers 28 lanes (25 yards each) while the biggest pools in Manatee County are G.T. Bray Park and the private Lakewood Ranch Athletic Center with eight lanes apiece, Klein said.
“Manatee County really is woefully short of enough space,” Klein said, noting many Manatee swimmers use facilities in Sarasota County. “During the high school season, you have nine high school teams trying to practice and you have only three (pools) to use. It’s not enough room.
“My group (of swimmers) in Sarasota is twice the size as my group in Manatee County, and that’s mainly because there’s not enough pool space,” he said.
Klein said a new pool complex ideally would offer both 50-meter and 25-yard swimming options and have a configuration to allow for a 3.5-foot-deep “teaching” area for lessons, training, water exercising and warm-ups.
Braden River High School swim coach Christine Walker said she hopes the county will consider a larger-scale aquatics complex that could attract regional, national and international swim meets.
“That would be fantastic,” she said. “It would be a win-win for all of us. They need to build a pool with a spectator section where you can hosts meets.”
She also hopes the county will consider a dive well, which would open up more recreational opportunities. Manatee County schools historically have not had diving programs, she said.
Santiago dreams of such a facility.
“I can only hope it does give us a chance to grow our sport,” Santiago said. “That’s my passion. Being able to hold events like this (soccer showcase) in the sport of swimming would be great.”
In addition to the aquatics center, Hunsicker said he expects the site to offer facilities for racquet sports, likely tennis and pickleball. How those amenities are constructed will depend on funding. Having activities available on a daily basis would require staffing.