By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Parks and Recreation Director Don Lewis walked Tupelo City Council members and Mayor Jason Shelton along the dirt floors and concrete inside what will be the city’s new $12 million aquatic center.
Lewis led the group of elected officials through the front of the building, which doesn’t have windows or cosmetic appeal yet. However, he didn’t let that stop him from showing off where the Olympic-sized swimming pool, conference room and patio area will be in the facility.
The city facility already has booked two swim meets for 2014 and has elevated Tupelo to be a top contender for the region’s meets.
Along with two swimming pools, lockers and meeting space, the new aquatic center has space for about 600 swimmers and 900 spectators.
“It’s a lot larger than it appears from the outside,” said Nettie Davis, City Council president.
With $8.6 million already paid for the project, construction is estimated at 85 percent complete.
The aquatic center will replace aging swimming facilities at Rob Leake City Pool, which has infrastructure problems that made repairing the existing pool cost prohibitive, Lewis said.
After community swimming supporters, tourism leaders and city officials worked with a consultant for the center, they envisioned a premiere facility that attracts out-of-town visitors who will spend their money in the community and add to local tax coffers.
Doubling as a tourism and quality-of-life enhancer for Tupelo, Lewis said people would have to look to Delta State University in Cleveland or Nashville for a comparable facility.
“We build things to bring in events for the local economy and also allowing local citizens to use it,” Lewis said.
Once fully operational, the swimming facility is expected to host six to eight swim meets annually, which attracts sponsors and helps cover expenses. With an estimated annual operating budget of $450,000, Lewis said the aquatic center is projected to break even within three to five years.
The current swimming facility, Rob Leake City Pool, operates at a loss of about $150,000 annually, Lewis said.
Along with city tax dollars, the CVB funded $429,000 to the project and agreed to pay $100,000 annually for three years for the facility, beginning in the current fiscal year.
Visiting the facility for the first time, Shelton said the project appeared impressive, but the recent recently elected, first-term mayor also acknowledged the responsibly of the project bringing in revenue.
“It’s going to be a world-class facility,” Shelton said. “We have to make it successful.”