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County moves forward with negotiations for proposed swim center

By Staff | Jun 23, 2011

The Lee County Commission will move forward with negotiations for a proposed swim center complex as long as some criteria are met.
On Tuesday, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted 4-1 to proceed with a proposal from the National Swimming Center Corporation to turn the City of Palms Park in Fort Myers into an Olympic-caliber facility.
However, the approval to open talks is based on a set of criteria.
Commissioner John Manning said the Economic Development Office had recommended that the county not move forward due to a lack of details.
“They didn’t think they had all of the financial information,” he said.
According to the proposal, the project would involve no county dollars.
Initially, the proposal had involved the county putting up a $40 million bond. After county staff recommended against moving forward with negotiations, the National Swimming Center removed the county’s financial contribution.
Under the new plan, the complex would be completed in phases. Phase I would cost $18.2 million and the National Swimming Center would cover that cost.
“They say they have the money, but how do you prove it?” Manning asked.
On Tuesday, he listed several points to be addressed if the commission moves forward. One criteria was that the National Swimming Center would put the funds for Phase I into an escrow account controlled by the county.
Manning said that would prove that the county was not entering into a contract with any financial obligation. He also emphasized that there would be no financial obligation on the part of the county now or in the future.
“We will go to one more stage, one final stage,” Manning said.
Additional points included a cash issue, bank statement issue and the involvement of the Lee County Sports Authority director, among others.
The National Swimming Center reportedly agreed to the criteria.
“This is far from a done deal,” Manning said. “We’ll see if they perform. If not, then we’ll shake hands and go our separate ways.”
Commissioner Brian Bigelow was the sole dissenting vote Tuesday.
“I think it’s fraught with too many risks,” he said.
According to Bigelow, one major concern for him is that the county could be left “holding the bag.” He said it could end up owning, managing and operating a swimming facility complex, without the experience and know-how to do so.
He also questioned whether the center would really draw events.
“We have much bigger problems in the county to address,” Bigelow said. “I thought this would be better negotiated between the city (of Fort Myers) and the swim center folks. They, after all, built the stadium originally.”
He said Fort Myers still carries a debt of about $19 million on the stadium and owns property adjacent to it that could be needed for parking. He added that reverting ownership of the stadium back to the city has been floated.
Last year, the Cape Coral City Council rejected a proposal from the National Swimming Center to build a facility that had an indoor swimming pool, a hotel and convention center. The projected cost was $84.9 million, but the project never got past a viability study.
Council felt that it was not getting the answers it needed to proceed.
“The National Swimming Center Corporation continues to believe that they have been blocked in their attempt to give that information,” Manning said. “They would not divulge that information until they were in contract negotiations.”