By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – City commitment stretching back three years to replace a damaged, outdated city pool culminates with Saturday’s grand opening of the Tupelo Aquatic Center, a $12 million facility that already has swimmers from across the state planning to use it for state swim meets scheduled next year.
After a year of construction at Veteran’s Park in east Tupelo, the center’s outside digital billboard displays messages and events, part of a wall inside has a strong resemblance to the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and the water and rest of the place awaits visitors to see what it has to offer.
Until this week, only an occasional toe had dipped into the Olympic-size, 20-lane pool. But that changed when Mayor Jason Shelton and former Mayor Jack Reed Jr. both jumped into the pool cannonball-style.
“I have no doubt the impact of this facility will be felt by many, many people for years to come,” Reed said at the groundbreaking in September 2012.
As he left City Hall in June, Reed passed the symbolic baton (or swimming goggles) to Shelton, who has pledged to do his part to make the facility a dual-purpose success by attracting competitive swimmers from hundreds of miles away and increasing quality of life for residents.
City leaders see the facility, with a capacity for 600 swimmers and 900 spectators, as an attraction for top swimming competitions in the state, and potentially regional and national events and other meets throughout the year.
Officially opening to much fanfare Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the day’s events include a visit from Peter Vanderkaay, a multiple gold medal-winning Olympian. He will give remarks at the beginning of the program and later sign autographs.
A day from the grand opening, city leaders have high expectations for the facility. Swimmers from throughout the state also have heard news of the aquatic center opening.
Mississippi Swimming, the state swimming association, has seven swim competitions scheduled for 2014 in Tupelo already posted on the organization’s website. Staff at the Tupelo facility have already started planning for visitors from across the state from January through July. Among events scheduled there, Tupelo will host a state swim meet in February and state championships in July.
And these events were booked without seeing a finished facility.
Tupelo Aquatic Center staff believe the first year of hosting events will help spread much buzz about the facility, leading to more events hosted there.
Moving from the smaller facility at Rob Leake City Park to an indoor, larger swimming venue in Tupelo provides a much more attractive offer when recruiting swimming events to the city. Tourism officials, businesses and others welcome events that bring swimmers and supporters, coaches and spectators to multi-day events in the city. The events bring in outside money that benefits businesses and contributes local tax revenue.
“You have to consider the economic impact on the entire city,” Shelton said this week. “People coming in for those meets will stay at our hotels, eat at our restaurants, and shop at our stores. Not to mention the exposure to the city of Tupelo.”
The city’s newest public asset offers modern facilities with which few others in Mississippi and surrounding areas can compare. The new home for Tupelo High School and Shockwave swim teams, the aquatic center offers benefits of a complete indoor swimming experience.
The center replaces the City Park pool that required a bubble dome during winter months and needed major renovations.
Making it happen
Looking back at decisions made to create the aquatic center, the process that led to project completion took a few twists and turns. It began with members of the Tupelo Aquatic Club, along with parents and supporters of high school and Shockwave teams identifying a need for a new swimming facility.
In November 2010, the City Council approved a contract with JBHM Architects to proceed with plans for a new Olympic-size swimming pool, estimated to cost $7 million. Then in March 2011, Isaac Sports Group and JBHM Architects presented a report to council members and the public that expanded the project to a proposed $11.3 million and suggested locating the new facility at sites at Ballard Park in west Tupelo, where more residents live and in closer proximity to Tupelo High School. However, the Veteran’s Park location ranked a close second, saying it would also make an attractive location.
Regardless of location, consultants said the robust aquatic facility would draw $407,000 in annual revenue, plus an additional $3.2 million in local economic impact. The presentation also included talk of increased aquatic activities locally with a new facility.
Agreeing on the project, City Council members continued debate between choosing the east and west Tupelo sites. Eventually, Veteran’s Park won out largely from concerns of over-congestion the new center would likely bring to Ballard Park, located in an already-busy area.
With a site location and plans to build, the city continued to make plans for the new center. Amy Williams Kennedy, then-senior recreation director for Tupelo Parks and Recreation, received a new title, aquatic center director.
With an annual operating budget of $677,140 and construction costs of $12 million, the aquatic center is one of Tupelo’s most anticipated recent projects. Along with two swimming pools, the facility includes a conference room for hosting birthday parties and other gatherings, locker rooms and showers, a patio area, concession area and office space.
The grand opening will allow the community to tour the entire facility, see demonstrations of programs and classes including paddle boarding, scuba diving, aqua Zumba, kickboxing and more.
For people who like what they see, they can sign up for classes to join the water activities.
“We’re going to have a program for everyone,” Kennedy said, in preparation of the facility opening.
Along with regular fitness classes and recreational swimming, the center also will offer swimming lessons. The facility can also be used for semi-private and private events including school field trips, private parties and after-hours rentals.
Blending expectations for local use and attracting many visitors from out of town, Tupelo’s aquatic center will welcome them all.
Hours of operation
(Beginning Jan. 2)
• Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday: 6 a.m.-8 p.m.
• Wednesday: 6 a.m.-6 p.m.
• Saturday: 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
• Sunday: 1 p.m.-5 p.m.
*–Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day