A joint meeting between Palmetto and Manatee officials held just a splash away from the proposed site of the Lincoln Park Pool made one thing clear — $3 million isn’t enough to get the job done.
The commissioners met at the Bradenton Area Convention Center Wednesday evening to discuss three different design proposals for a community resource years in the making. They agreed, however, that the money they pledged already won’t fully fund their expectations.
In a design presentation, Tom Yarger, a county property management official, provided the Palmetto City Commission and the Manatee County Board of Commissioners with three options ranging from $3 million to $7 million.
“We’re about 30 percent through the design stage right now,” Yarger said.
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The cheapest option was a $3 million facility that lacked bells and whistles. It includes a combination learn-to-swim pool with four lap lanes and a support building that meets the minimum requirements mandated by the health department. The lack of basic amenities in the plan, such as parking, site lighting and furniture, made it the subject of fierce criticism from both elected officials and the public.
County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she was embarrassed by the size and design of the pool, which Commissioner Stephen Jonsson compared to a Ford Fiesta compact car.
“It looks like a pool in someone’s backyard,” Whitmore said.
Concerned residents couldn’t understand how the design made it to the presentation, either.
“I’m always concerned of the switcheroo,” said MacArthur Sellers. “When I look at our community, I understand you’re building more schools on the north side. I understand we’re growing. Let’s not be short-sighted. Let’s shoot for the $7 million for what’s best for the community as a whole.”
There was also skepticism between the area’s elected officials. Commissioner Brian Williams claimed that the county is selective with its funds and would only be willing to go for the cheapest choice.
“The county can find the money. I assure you something is going to happen later this year,” he predicted. “You’ll need money for a special project and you’re going to come up with it.”
County Commissioner Betsy Benac refuted that suggestion and called for both boards to stick to a realistic budget.
“I don’t think the idea that the county has unlimited funds is real,” she said. “I hear it all the time.”
“This is something we want to do,” said County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. “We don’t want to do it halfway. We want it good enough and big enough for people to enjoy.”
Shooting for the stars
If the lackluster $3 million design is a Ford Fiesta, then the $7 million pool would be a top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz. It incorporates two pools — a 6,500-square-foot competition pool and a 2,000-square-foot zero entry learn-to-swim pool. The design also bundles a 3,400-square-foot support building, upgrades to the splash park and pool amenities.
While the best pool possible sounds good on paper, Benac said that $7 million, which is more than twice the agreed cost, will need to come from somewhere. Palmetto previously pledged $850,000 and Manatee promised $2,175,000.
“We have one job, and that’s to balance a budget,” Benac said, pointing out that the most expensive pool option would still require an added cost for spectator seating, a kitchenette and other amenities. “We have to be concerned about budget issues. Realistically, it’s going to cost more than $7 million with what we need.”
“If you continually shoot for the stars, that’s what you’re going to get — a view of the stars,” Benac said.
But Palmetto Commissioner Harold Smith said the Lincoln Park Pool isn’t about shooting for the stars, but about providing residents north of the Manatee River with a comparable swimming facility to Manatee County’s best.
“We want our pool to look just like G.T. Bray or better,” Smith argued. “We got kids coming up who want to learn how to swim. We got kids coming up that wanna learn how to dive. We need this pool for our children.”
After listening to comments from the public, County Commissioner Reggie Bellamy, who represents the Palmetto community, said he was “embarrassed” that his fellow board members were struggling to do what’s best for the area.
“It seems like taxpayers north of the river are begging to be served,” Bellamy said. “We have the opportunity to do something very unique to put our stamp on this for recreation, education and competition. We can do that with taxpayer dollars, and it’s not just North River. You need to change your mindset.”
With the recent approval of a new hotel near the Bradenton Area Convention Center, Palmetto Commissioner Tamara Cornwell said there’s potential to add dive wells to the pool and open the location up to competitions that would draw visitors from outside the region.
The Goldilocks option
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker anticipated opposition to both the costly design and the bottom tier, he said. Over the holiday break, he instructed staff to find a compromise that might strike the right balance.
Staff presented a $5 million design that still includes both a competitive pool capable of hosting high school and college competitions, a learning pool and a support building. That option, however, does not include the cost of parking, splash park upgrades or furniture.
The conversation between officials boiled back down to what they hope to achieve with the pool. Hunzeker said his records indicate that the pool was proposed to teach children how to swim but over the course of time, it ballooned into a bigger project to accommodate the northern part of the county.
“If we’re building something worse than what we have on the south side, then that’s wrong,” County Commissioner Priscilla Trace said, referring to G.T. Bray and John Marble pools. “We need a pool big enough for enough kids in the summer. We don’t need a bunch of kids sitting around the pool waiting for somebody to hop out.”
‘Skin in the game’
As commissioners agreed that the $3 million design was off the table, signaling their interest in the $5 million design. Bellamy said that raises the question of how much more each government will pay.
“We need to make sure it’s very clear when we walk away and that number increases that we all have skin in the game,” said Bellamy.
County staff worked the current funding agreement out to 72 percent for the county and 28 percent for Palmetto, but Cornwell disagreed with that logic. Sticking to that ratio, Palmetto would pay $1.4 million and the county would pay $3.6 million for the middle-tier pool.
“We didn’t agree to 28 percent,” she said. “We agreed to a dollar amount.”
Each board will hold their own meetings to discuss what priorities the Lincoln Pool should include, with another joint meeting slated to take place soon, said Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant, adding that “great strides” were made during Wednesday’s session.
“Let’s keep in mind that this is for the entire county,” Williams said. “I’ll stick my neck out and say this will be an item on our next agenda and we will discuss it and get the message back to you all.”