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Testing the waters: Aquatics center proposal hailed but funding issues may douse hopes

By Staff | May 16, 2009

The prospect of building a world-class swimming facility in Cape Coral will hinge entirely on whether the city and county can come up with enough cash to help fund the project.
The National Swimming Center Corporation, the company behind the swimming complex, is asking Lee County for $10 million to help fund the $30 million mixed use facility.
The $30 million is the amount needed to fund the first phase of the project, which would focus on the swimming facilities. In total, the project would also include a 300-room hotel, convention center, multiple pools, tennis courts, restaurants, shopping, and competition seating for 6,000 people, expandable for Olympic trials.
NSCC is asking Cape Coral for $5 million, but also is seeking 100 acres of land in the so-called “Academic Village” area to be donated, or leased to the non-profit corporation for $1 a year for 99 years.
The first step for the city will be to dole out $50,000 for a $100,000 feasibility study.
Both city and county leaders have no idea how the project will be funded, but agree the opportunity to build such a facility is impossible to pass up.
Councilwoman Dolores Bertolini, who also sits on the county’s Tourism Development Council, said the Cape only came into contention for the swimming complex last February.
The NSCC has long been eyeing Lee County for this type of facility, possibly connected to the new Red Sox stadium. But as plans for the stadium began moving in a different direction, and the NSCC threatened to move the project elsewhere, it became apparent the time to build was now.
“The Cape was never in the conversation,” Bertolini said. “Interest in the project seemed to be waning, seemed to be dividing. As the division became larger I asked Commissioner Tammy Hall (if the project would work in the Cape), and Hall said, why not?”
Slated for north Cape at the intersection of Kismet and Del Prado, the aquatic center, dubbed “Concourse at Cape Coral”, would be a potential boom for the area.
Along with a new Veteran’s hospital, the two projects could suddenly turn north Cape into a desirable place to live for those more interested in amenities.
That’s part of the project’s appeal for city and county leaders; the economic drive that surrounds the entire idea.
“I see this as the focal point for all of north Lee County,” said Joe Mazurkiewicz, Council for Progress executive director. “It will drive north east Cape, which doesn’t have an economic driver right now.”
Mazurkiewicz said the council has not taken an official position on the project, but most members “were very excited” about the possibilities the proposed facility would afford.
He added that while the funding picture indeed seemed fuzzy right now, there are many ways to fund the project on the county level other than tourism development dollars, or “bed tax” funds.
Commissioners recently reallocated bed tax money to fund the new Red Sox spring training facility, to be located on Daniels Parkway near the airport in Fort Myers. Money was moved from the beach and shoreline fund to pay for the new stadium.
“Based on what I know, there’s multiple sources that could support this kind of project,” Mazurkiewicz said. “There are more sources than TDC money. It could be supported by the county’s $25 million million in economic stimulus. Lee County also has $100 million in reserves.”
While it’s true the county has earmarked $25 million for luring businesses to the area, and commissioners have managed county money well enough to build up $100 million in reserves, the question remains as to whether those funds will be available for the swimming center.
Jeff Mielke, director of the county’s Sports Authority, declined to comment on where the money might come from because negotiations with NSCC are still ongoing.
He did say he doubted the Sports Authority would “find a lot dollars” for the project, but indicated there might other ways than money to help move the project along.
“I feel very confidant there are some potential opportunities to help the project, that would be the same as cash, but I’m unable to comment because of the negotiation,” Mielke said.
The county’ economic development office said the money is there to help attract businesses, but has no involvement with this project.
Spokeswoman Jennifer Berg said the money has specific requirements, possibly making it unavailable for the swimming facility.
“I don’t believe it would be applicable,” she said of the project. “That money has specific parameters for high skill, high wage industry. So, I don’t know if it will qualify.”
With the proposal on the table, the threat of losing the facility seems to have been quelled, but even that is uncertain.
Rumors indicate the NSCC is eyeing other cities, possibly Corpus Christie, Texas, as a home for the facility, but those rumors are unsubstantiated.
Attempts to contact NSCC, or its senior technical advisor John McIlhargy, have been unsuccessful but city officials said the projects are not competing, but of a different scope and focus.
Yet, the parties involved stressed it’s too early for the community to get worked up one way or the other about the project.
The city is taking the position that until the feasibility study is conducted, no one will know what the true impact will be, what kind of jobs it will provide.
The proposal indicates the economic impact, including $35.8 million pumped into the local economy and an additional 65,704 of hotel room nights sold, is based solely on if the facility hosts 12 events a year.
It does not take into consideration Olympic time trials or collegiate events, which would most certainly be held at the facility.
The local impact, too, also has not been studied.
Groups like the Cape based Sunshine Synchro Splash, a synchronized swimming club, would have the opportunity to use a world class facility, as well hold competitions and meets that would attract similar groups from around the state.
When the Sunshine Synchro wants to compete, they often travel to the east coast or Orlando.
“As much as I love the facilities in the Cape and on Pine Island we can’t host a competition there,” said club founder Wendy Stafford. “The existing facilities aren’t conducive to competition.”
Stafford stressed competitions attract 1,200 — 1,700 competitors, a number that doesn’t include family members.
A former competitive swimmer, Stafford said the facility would offer the Cape a source of revenue other than property taxes. She added the exposure for the Cape would be invaluable.
“We could host any number of local, regional, and national events,” Stafford said. “It’s good for the sport and it’s good for the area.”
The city has a limited amount of dollars for economic development, according to City Manager Terry Stewart.
Stewart said there were no “specific funds” set aside for development, but city council has access to “about” a half million dollars they would be able to revisit should the project move forward.
Stewart echoed the notion that the community should not be quick to judge the prospective facility one way or the other. There are many hurdles left before, or if, ground is ever broken.
“I think it’s too early for anyone to say it will or will not happen,” Stewart said. “We’re in the early stages and there’s a lot of negotiations that need to take place.”