Residents urge Manatee County to upgrade Lakewood Ranch pool plans | Eastern County

After more than a dozen Lakewood Ranch-area residents attended a county commission budget meeting on July 28, advocating for a 50-meter swimming pool in the future Premier Park project at Lakewood Ranch, instead of the previously proposed 25-meter pool, a county staff member confirmed that such a change is feasible.

Angela Honts, county project manager, said the park plan is conceptual and could allow for an increase in length, without impacting other facilities.

Those who objected to a smaller pool were satisfied.

“We believe the commission listened to citizens and swimmers,” said Maggie Mooney of Panther Ridge.

County Administrator Scott Hopes told the commission meeting that changing plans from a 25-meter pool to a 50-meter pool would cost about $770,250. He was confident he could work with acting CFO Sheila McLean to find the money.

Mooney said not only would the pool benefit residents, but it would also be a revenue-generating operation.

The county is planning other facilities at Premier Park including an amphitheater, gymnasium, baseball and softball complex, bike path, basketball courts, volleyball courts, dirt tennis courts battee and a district office and fleet facility of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

The county’s capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2023 to 2027 includes a budget of $28.45 million for sports facilities at Premier Park.

The swimming community is getting organized

The commission meeting drew speakers from five families whose children are involved with area swim teams, as well as Samantha Presley, swim coach for the Sarasota Tsunami swim team.

Mooney said her interest began six months ago when she learned the length of the pool, due to the investment of her two children, Payton Portale, 11, and Teagan Portale, 8, in the swimming.

The two children both belong to the Tsunami swim team.

Mooney said that based on the number of matches the Premier campus has attracted for football, she was excited about the news of a pool until she realized “it was an undersized pool that didn’t certainly wouldn’t generate comparable revenue and frankly, would still leave the county with an empty 50-yard pool.

She said the push for a longer pool has become a collaborative effort involving not only the Tsunami Swim Team, but others as well, including the Lakewood Ranch Swim Association’s Lightning Team. She said a petition had about 1,400 signatures at the time of the meeting.

A 50 meter pool, which is Olympic size, is the standard for competitive swimming. Mooney said training for these meets in a 25-meter pool is difficult because it forces swimmers to get used to doing a wall turn.

As her daughters progressed in the sport, it became increasingly difficult to accommodate their swimming practices from their home in Panther Ridge. She said they currently swim mostly at John H. Marble Park in Bradenton, a 25-meter pool, but can occasionally visit the GT Bray Recreation Center and Arlington Water Park and Complex in Sarasota, both of which are 50 meter pools.

Mooney said the drive from Willis Elementary to John H. Marble Park involves rush hour traffic.

“It’s stressful for the kids, it’s stressful for the parents, but it’s a sport your kids love,” she said.

Mill Creek’s Ava DiPasquale spoke to the commissioners about her passion for the sport.

“The key to my success is that I’ve been going to Sarasota since April every chance I get to train and swim in the 50-meter pool,” she said. “Swimming taught me motivation, dedication, time management and how to deal with success and loss.”

Her father, Derek DePasquale, said she ranks among the top five state swimmers in the 100-meter butterfly in her age group (10 and under).

Maggie Mooney’s daughters Tegan Portale, 8, and Payton Portale, 11, speak at the commission meeting on July 28. (Photo by Ian Swaby)

Speaking at the commission meeting, Teagan Portale described the trip as “always a hectic”, saying it sometimes delayed the family for practices.

Derek DiPasquale said the DiPasquale family regularly take 22-mile trips from Arlington to Sarasota.

He said the minimum number of workouts required at Ava DiPasquale’s level is five per week.

“Rising gas costs, time, it’s a huge commitment,” he said.

Ava DiPasquale also said practice is hard to organize because she has to try harder to find time for things like homework, as well as carpooling with other swimmers to make the trip.

Former US Olympian and gold medalist (1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, 4×100 meter medley relay), Tripp Schwenk advocated for a larger pool based on what he said were the needs water safety thanks to more space in the pool.

Friendly curators

Commissioners expressed support for a larger pool, with some also warning residents about the ability to fund the project.

District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said, “I’m on board, I’m going to push this,” saying she would flag the project for further review, noting her history of advocating for a competition duration pool .

Baugh said she was “all in from day one.”

She also said: “Then we have to make sure it is, quote-unquote, a Premier Park.”

She said the county had “sufficient” reserves for the project, but needed to confirm whether it was feasible.

Commissioner General George Kruse said he thinks Premier is a great asset to Manatee County, explaining that the Premier Park complex could compete or work in conjunction with sites such as Robinson Preserve and Nathan Benderson Park.

“I want Premier to be a world-class facility,” he said.

He said he would support commissioners and engineers determining the additional costs.

“I don’t want to do anything else halfway, especially in this place.”

Commissioner General Carol Whitmore called Premier a place where Olympians “would come from all over the world” and described it as a suitable location for a 50m pool, while calling for a clearer picture of the cost.

District 1 Commissioner James Satcher said he would support the pool based on the county’s current reserves.

“I’m a guy who’s in favor of lowering taxes wherever possible, but at this point we have this money that’s already been taken in, and it seems like a smart investment, to make it a place where people want to come, other areas.”

Commissioner Kevin van Ostenbridge said the pool at the GT Bray Recreation Center, which is located in his district, is currently “full to bursting”, with county staff dedicated to ensuring sufficient staffing for the many high school teams and colleges using the facility.

He said the council should ensure sufficient funding.

Yosaieo Leoon, 8, from Bradenton, swims in the pool at GT Bray Park, which has 50-metre lanes. (Photo by Ian Swaby)

Commissioners Reggie Bellamy and Misty Servia also expressed support but raised concerns about funding.

According to county records, the pool is currently budgeted at $13.59 million. During the meeting, Servia and Whitmore expressed interest in using the tourist tax to fund the project.

According to Hopes, based on his research and conversations, the facility needs a 25-meter pool, a warm-up pool, a 50-meter pool, and a therapy pool.

“If we have all of this on this resort, I believe people won’t be talking about going to Charlotte County,” Hopes said. “They won’t talk about going to Orange County. They’ll talk about going to Premier at Lakewood Ranch, the nation’s fastest growing community.

Delighted residents

Proponents of the pool said after the committee meeting that they were optimistic about the proposal’s future success.

Tsunami swim team swim instructor Samantha Presley said she found the meeting “very successful”.

“I was delighted to hear the results from the commissioners themselves,” she said. “All, from what I heard, were on board. Hopefully we’ll get what we want and find our money for it.

Catherine Gates of Central Park, whose 8-year-old daughter Julia Gates is from Lakewood Ranch Lightning, said she felt the reunion brought positive results for the group.

“Judging by what has been said, I think they are on our side,” she said.

She said a 50-meter swimming pool would be needed in the community at some point, a view that was also expressed by Kruse.

“If they don’t build it now, they’ll have to build it later,” she said. “Build it now and we’ll be out of your hair, and then you can move on.”

Jen DiPasquale said that although the commission was focused on the subject of money, she spoke at the meeting to emphasize that the pool itself could generate revenue.

“We were trying to make that point today,” she said. “Are you building a pool like this?” It will be an economic engine for the community.

Mooney said it was economic factors, not just participation, that drove the success of advocacy. “It’s not just about getting people out,” she said. “It’s also that it makes sense.”

Other steps still await the project before it can be realized.

However, Honts said the project had not yet started its design phase and therefore the proposed revisions would be included in the 30% plans submitted at the start of the design. She said there could be an increase in design fees and a change to the design contract, and those changes would require the approval of county commissioners.

Current estimates, she said, include completion of the final design in September 2023, inauguration of the project from December 2023 to January 2024 and completion in April 2025.

Honts said that in the event that a contract change order is requested, it could add one to two months to the time for completion of the design.

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