LEE COUNTY — John Albion pulled out a piece of bubblegum to show Lee County commissioners how much it will cost to transform City of Palms Park baseball stadium into an aquatics center.
“This gum costs more than what we’re asking of Lee County,” Albion told the board.
The board of commissioners voted Tuesday to continue negotiations with the Austin, Texas-based National Swimming Center Corporation with the administrative agenda item passing 4-1 with Commissioner Brian Bigelow dissenting.
For more than a year, the swimming center and the county have gone back and forth between proposals that would satisfy the county’s financial situation. Facing a possible $50 million shortfall in the upcoming budget, commissioner stated in past meetings that they did not want to take on a project which would require county funds.
The proposal commissioners agreed to negotiate on today is the swimming center’s most recent incarnation of the original proposal, stating the company will pay for the entire $18.2 million renovation of the former Red Sox spring training stadium. The National Swimming Center Corporation has stated it currently has $25 million in the bank to begin the first of what would be a three-phase project if the first phase, transforming the ballpark's fields into five pools, is successful.
“Our company has proved that is has the resources and ability and passion to do this project,” Executive Director John McIlhargy told the board.
Commissioners agreed a top concern for the project is funding, will Commissioner Tammy Hall noting that once negotiations begin between the county and the National Swimming Center, commissioners and county staff will be able to see documentation of the financial feasibility of the project.
“I don’t have an issue moving forward with contract negotiations,” Hall said. “That’s when the rubber will hit the road … all we talk about is ‘what ifs,’ but today I want the documents and I want to go through it.”
In his statement to the board after voting against further negotiations, Commissioner Bigelow recalled the inter-local agreement made in 2003 between the City of Fort Myers and Lee County when the county purchased City of Palms Park, stating the City of Fort Myers could take City of Palms Park back and pay the county for expenses now that it’s no longer used for spring training.
“I am extremely concerned with how we’re spending money in this county and where it’s going,” he said. “If the city wants to negotiate with the National Swimming Center Corporation and propose for us how we might partner in that agreement, I’ll entertain that at a later date. I think it’s more appropriate that the City of Fort Myers negotiated with the swim center.”
During public comment, Clerk of Courts Charlie Green recommended to staff that, if they were to move forward with the swim center, to put the $25 million the corporation claims to have in financial backing in a bank account in escrow.
“If they raised that much money, great,” he said. “If not, they can get it back.”
While negotiations could take months, Albion said the first phase of renovations would take a year to convert the facility in a swimming and aquatic center once a contract is signed.
“It’ll the biggest and it’ll be the best aquatic center in the country,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing it get built and get in the bid for 2016 Olympic trials.”