By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The city’s proposed $11.3 million indoor aquatic facility cleared a major hurdle Tuesday when municipal leaders approved its construction at Veterans Park.
City Council members voted 5-2 on the measure, which launches the project into the next phase. Architects will spend several months finalizing details on the proposed facility before soliciting bids for its construction.
Construction could start sometime this summer and is expected to take about 18 months, according to Tupelo Parks and Recreation Director Don Lewis.
Plans call for a 45,000-square-foot indoor swimming complex to serve the community and competitive swimmers. It would also host meets.
According to a feasibility study, it could generate $407,000 in direct revenues annually and have a $3.5 million annual economic impact.
Opposing the measure were Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell and Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan.
Bryan said the estimated project cost had risen too much since it first was unveiled five years ago; it had been about $6-$7 million then. He also disagreed with paying for the facility through municipal bonds that also might fund other projects at the same time.
The bonds, which also require council vote, haven’t been issued.
And Newell argued other more pressing needs – like a new police station or public library – should take precedent over a swim complex. He wanted to put the issue to a public vote.
Both men also wanted the complex at Ballard Park.
They were outnumbered by supporters, including Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington, who said a state-of-the-art aquatic center would put Tupelo on the map and have a positive economic impact.
Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis said it would improve the quality of life.
And Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings said he understood his colleagues’ concerns about spending several million dollars during a lackluster economy.
“But I think over time,” Jennings said, “the citizens of this city will appreciate this facility.”
Dozens of aquatic supporters at the meeting erupted in applause immediately after the vote. Among them was John Gaston, who had addressed the council earlier in the evening.
“This is not something new the city has taken up recently in a rash decision,” he said. “Tupelo has had proven aquatics for many years.”
But the city’s only competition pool, at Rob Leake Park, is decades old and uses a temporary bubble in the winter. Swimmers have long pushed for a permanent indoor complex.
Another resident, Lisa Schwenk, also spoke to the council. She opposed the project for many reasons, including her belief it could lure low-income workers to the city in search of the tourism jobs created by the new facility.