Council gives Tupelo Aquatic Center project A-OK

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The city’s $11.3 million aquatic center proposal got near unanimous support from elected leaders who said they’re ready to approve the project next month.
City Council members met with project proponents Tuesday at City Hall. They included Parks and Recreation Department officials, architects, consultants and about 50 residents – mostly swimmers – who packed the room to show support for the new facility.
It was the first such meeting since the project’s preliminary plans were revealed in March. Since then, council members have mulled the proposal, its estimated cost, a location for the facility and the city’s ability to afford it all.
For some, those issues were put to rest this week.
“I feel all the questions that needed to be asked have been asked, and I’m ready to vote,” said Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis, who supports the project.
The issue will be placed on the council’s Oct. 4 study agenda and could go up for vote by Oct. 18.
If council members vote yes, it will launch the project into its next phase. A final plan will be prepared and the project will be readied for bid.
“Once you approve this,” said Parks and Recreation Director Don Lewis, “you’re approving the aquatic center,”
Most of the seven council members, including Davis, want the 45,000-square-foot complex located in Veteran’s Park near the softball fields. That’s versus an earlier recommendation to place it in Ballard Park.
The city’s Parks Advisory Board also independently affirmed its choice of Veteran’s Park in east Tupelo because of its ample space, Lewis said.
Ballard crowded?
Ballard Park, in west Tupelo, already supports a multi-field baseball and soccer complex that host numerous local and regional events, keeping the park packed most of the time.
Adding a swimming center would further crowd the park and make it hard for sports teams to schedule concurrent events, some at the meeting said.
But Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan said he favors Ballard Park, because it’d offer a one-stop-shop and alleviate drive time for parents whose children participate in various activities.
He also said it’s closer to Tupelo High School and its swimmers.
“Who’s building it, the city or the school system?” replied Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis, who wants the facility at Veteran’s Park.
Davis, like most council members, say they are ready to vote on the project as soon as possible and will recommend Veteran’s Park as its location.
But Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell isn’t among them. He said he still has questions about how the city will fund the facility. Although City Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris said Tupelo can afford the project through municipal bonds and without a tax increase, Newell thinks it could require a tax hike.
He wants to ask residents to vote on whether they’re willing to raise taxes by 2 mills.
The facility will feature one Olympic-size pool and a smaller pool for fitness or instruction. It calls for seating, locker rooms, rest rooms, offices, a multipurpose room, kitchen and a lobby.
It would serve both casual and competitive swimmers and generate $407,000 in annual revenues, plus an additional $3.2 million in local economic impact, consultants said.
Its total annual operating cost is estimated at $477,000, which, at 15 percent over revenue, means the city would have to float the difference.
But it’s a smaller difference than today’s rate: Tupelo’s current indoor pool costs roughly $212,000 annually to operate yet generates just $52,000 in annual revenues – a $160,000 shortfall.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com