By JACK WEATHERLY
Mississippi isn’t necessarily known as a “swimming” state. But a plan has been floated to change that.
An 88,700-square-foot facility at an estimated cost of $33.6 million has been proposed for land to be donated by the city of Ridgeland for the Mississippi Aquatic Center.
The facility would rely on corporate sponsorships — including the possibility of naming rights for big participants — and fees.
It also would need a bond issue from the state.
A commitment from the local government and private sector would be essential to show the Legislature, said state Rep. Cory Wilson, Republican, for District 73.
“Getting private buy-in and local buy-in is the key thing,” State Rep. Cory Wilson, Republican, for District 73
“Getting private buy-in and local buy-in is the key thing,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he started talking with city officials, during the 2016 legislative session.
“I’m certainly supportive of the facility they’re talking about,” he said.
Wilson acknowledged there will be competition for a bond issue, given the state’s needs – roads and bridges improvements and maintenance being high on the list – and its deficit budget.
Alan Hart, director of Community Development for Ridgeland, said the city may contribute acreage valued at about $1 million for the facility.
The site would be east of Interstate 55, south of the Freedom Ridge Park with its sports fields and Lake Harbour Drive extension.
A study was carried out by Wallover Aquatics International LLC of Lancaster, Pa. It was paid for by the Ridgeland Tourism Commission and the board of the Sunkist Swim Team. The commission is supported by a hotel and restaurant tax.
McGee is quoted in the study: “It is our goal to work toward being able to provide the land for the Aquatic Center Project.”
The study projects the annual economic impact on the area at $1.5 million – primarily from four major invitationals generating $1.3 million from four Sunkist meets.
The Flowood-based Sunkist team was started in 1982 with the help of its major sponsor, Brown Bottling Co.
The aquatic center, which would seat around 2,000, would be “more than just your neighborhood pool,” said David Orr, head coach of the team.
“The pools in Jackson are old and have run their . . . course,” Orr said.
The facility would go beyond economic impact and usefulness for teams, he said.
The plan calls for a two-phase build-out, starting with the competitive aspect, followed by a teaching and wellness phase.
The first phase would cost an estimated $24.7 million, followed by phase two at $8.9 million.
The inspiration for the center is the Greensboro (N.C.) Aquatic Center, which opened more than five years ago and “has been very successful,” he said.
Wallover Aquatics, the firm that did the study, had done another one and noticed that metro Jackson was one of the “sweet spots” that would be a good fit.
Metro Jackson is a “hospital town,” and so Wallover “thought that we had a real opportunity to involve a health partner with regard to obesity and aquatic therapy,” Orr said.
Mary Beth Wilkerson, director of the commission, said “sports tourism” can be a major contributor to economic development.
The center would attract statewide, regional and eventually national competitions, Wilkerson said.
Such events would give exposure to other Mississippi tourist attractions, such as the Grammy museum in Cleveland, the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, and the Gulf Coast, Wilkerson said.
The PEAQ (Performance Elite Aquatics) swim team is a three-year-old club that is using the swimming pool at the Cypress Lake neighborhood in Madison, according to head coach Fernando Reis, who is also business manager for Hartfield Academy in Flowood.
He said that no one has looked to his team for input at this point but that “this is great for the community.”
Efforts to get comments from Brian Ware, coach of the Mississippi Makos Swim Team in Flowood, were not immediately successful.
There are eight other Mississippi-based independent swim teams, in addition to public and private schools.
Within 200 miles of metro Jackson there are 123 swim teams, according to the Wallover study.
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