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Olympic destination?

By Staff | Jan 23, 2010

Officials from the National Swimming Center Corporation feel Cape Coral is the perfect place for their flagship aquatic center, the “Concourse at Cape Coral,” though admittedly they’re not entirely sure where funding for the $200 million facility will come from.
What is clear, however, is that plans for the proposed facility are vast and ambitious. They include not only five Olympic caliber swimming pools, but also a hotel and convention center, seating for up to 10,000 spectators, a swimming hall of fame, sports bar and restaurant, a tennis facility, retail center and satellite campuses for universities.
NSCC consultant John Mcilhargy compared the size of the aquatic center to “Germain Arena on steroids,” saying the economic potential for both the Cape and Lee County are very high.
He said the facility will attract athletes, families and fans of the sport from all over the nation, fostering an atmosphere of competitive entertainment.
“This is a next generation aquatic facility that will be event conscious,” he said. “And it will make swimming more accessible to people who don’t understand the sport.”
Cape Coral City Councilman Marty McClain, a champion of the project, said the city desperately needs to diversify its tax base by fostering commercial growth.
Right now the city’s tax base is 92 percent residential, according to McClain, and the aquatic center could provide that commercial boost.
“When you generate commercial projects, it’s like that ‘Field of Dreams’ thing: Build it and they will come,” he said.
The 171-acre Academic Village site would be the home of the facility.
A feasibility study is due to City Council in two to three weeks, according to Mcilhargy.
He said the design phase of the project will begin in April of this year, and that he hopes to break ground sometime in 2011.
The project should be completed by December 2012, and could provide 1.9 million man hours of labor, according to the NSCC.
It will be laid out in two phases, with the aquatic, tennis and retail portions built first. The hotel/convention center and swimming hall of fame as the second phase.
City Council will decide, once they see the feasibility study, to spend an additional $25,000 on a private firm to review that study.
Some council members have been cautious about the project, saying the city has no money to invest.
NSCC is planning to put $20 million of its own money into the project, and Lee County has already committed $4.5 million.
They previously asked the city to provide another $5 million toward the overall cost, but Mcilhargy said they will probably back off that request.
Instead, they’ve proposed the city donate the Academic Village land for the project,
“We asked the city for $5 million, but we know they don’t have it,” he said.
Once attached to the new Red Sox stadium, the aquatic center project finally landed in Cape Coral last year.
The NSCC previously tried to build a similar facility in Corpus Christie, Texas, but that project eventually fell through.
Detractors of the project point to that failure as the reason the Cape should not pursue the facility, but Mcilhargy said that city’s internal squabbles and zoning issues grounded the project.
“There was a lot of bad blood there that had nothing to do with us,” he said. “It had to do with the way city council treated it, not us.”
Patrice Cunningham from Swim Florida — a swim organization in Lee and Collier counties that boasts thousands of local swimmers — said people don’t realize the economic impact of swimming.
She said there are 1,500 kids that attend swim meets at one pop, staying for an entire weekend and pumping thousands of dollars into hotels, restaurants and shopping.
“It’s a quiet sport, and if you’re not involved you don’t know how big it really is,” she said.
McClain knows the aquatic center will go up in Lee County, if not Cape Coral, then somewhere else.
He knows that county leaders will jump on it should the city decide to take a pass, but that’s something he hopes won’t happen.
“They will gladly take this across the river … we need to embrace this,” McClain said.
City council was set to decide what to do with the feasibility study during its meeting on Monday, but that has been postponed in favor of waiting until members have the feasibility study in their hands.
National Swimming Center Corporation Director Sal Panico said he understands the city’s hesitation, but stressed that the NSCC badly wants to house their premier facility in the Cape.
While it might seem the NSCC simply picked Cape Coral out of a hat, Panico said their relationship with Lee County started six years ago, and this is where they want to stay.
“We got here and we wanted to stay, we just didn’t know how do it,” Panico said.