Dr. Bill McCartney is a man on a mission.
As a consultant to the city of Niceville’s Community Redevelopment Agency, McCartney has authored a study on the need for and feasibility of an aquatic center providing Olympic-style swimming facilities. He’s convinced that the long-held dream of having a place for local swimmers and divers to train and compete will become a reality.
The only questions are when, where, and how big.
“Most people probably don’t realize this, but there are more college students from Okaloosa County on aquatic sports scholarships than on football scholarships,” McCartney said. “And yet there isn’t one 50-meter public pool in Okaloosa County. In fact, there isn’t a certified training facility between Pensacola and Tallahassee. We have local athletes forced to practice in motel pools.”
In his feasibility study, McCartney suggests two options for a future center.
“Option 1 is a local, Niceville resident only facility,” he said. “The city would own and operate it. Option 2 is a larger, regional center that would provide competition and training facilities for the surrounding area. This would be located in Niceville but would be operated under some sort of interlocal agreement involving several different entities, possibly including the city and other municipalities, the county, the school district, and other interested agencies. We see this type of special district all the time, including local water management and sewer districts and other organizations that serve a regional purpose.”
McCartney and a group of leaders from area swimming organizations traveled throughout the state to look for examples of aquatic centers that provide the services local swimmers and divers seek. Their research suggests that a regional center could offer a wide array of services and facilities, including:
• a 50-meter x 25-yard, eight-lane competition pool, 8-foot depth, outdoor heated, Myrtha-designed pool.
• 25-meter x 25-yard flexible pool, which could be enclosed and used as a heated training pool.
• A zero entry to a 4-foot splash pool with a splash pad.
• An adjacent 12-foot – 16-foot deep diving, surface and sub-surface, well.
• Large decks with abundant shade, including spectator bleachers.
• A building to house administration, training, locker rooms with individual showers, lounge, and snack bar.
• Parking for both cars and buses.
On the other hand, a scaled-down, Niceville-only facility would include two pools (a 50-meter outdoor pool and a 25-meter covered pool) and diving facilities. It would feature smaller decks, buildings, and other facilities.
McCartney’s study has identified six potential sites for an aquatic center, including properties already owned by the city, the county, and the Okaloosa County School District. While cost estimates are difficult to make with certainty given the multiple factors at play, his report states that a countywide aquatic center could be developed for approximately $15 to $20 million. A Niceville-only facility would range from $6 to $8 million, not including site costs.
“There are a number of sources of funding available, including tourist development grant money, Triumph Gulf Coast money, as well as other state and federal grants,” McCartney said. “Operations and maintenance costs would be covered by user fees.”
McCartney believes that the economic impact of such a facility would be considerable.
“Florida and the southeastern region have lots of swim teams,” he said. “If we had a place that could host regional swimming and diving competitions, imagine the impact of 40 to 50 families per meet staying at hotels, eating at restaurants, and shopping at stores.”
He added that an aquatic center could also be used to train lifeguards, first responders, scuba divers, and even military personnel.
Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners Chairman Trey Goodwin, who attended a workshop to discuss a possible aquatic center earlier this month, supports the idea of a regional facility.
“Okaloosa County is very excited to partner with the City of Niceville and the other stakeholders with a project of this magnitude,” Goodwin said. “This kind of amenity will help extend the tourist season year-round and will be a vital asset for locals. There is an extensive need that has been identified, and this will benefit the swimming and diving community. The proposed locations are regionally appealing for sports tourism opportunities as well as filling the needs of local youth and adult swimming organizations. We look forward to supporting this effort as it moves forward.”
McCartney is confident that “a workable plan” will be in place for the project by the start of next year. That’s great news for Vivien James, whose daughter has been involved in competitive swimming for seven years.
“It is so sad we don’t have adequate facilities for our swimmers to train and compete in our amazing town,” she said. “Currently, they have to travel to Destin or Fort Walton. Often these facilities are broken, not as well maintained, or are outdoor pools, which means they have to swim in the cold. When there are storms, practices have to be canceled.
“If we had a facility in Niceville, just imagine how much better it would be for these athletes and for others in our community who would be able to access a quality, indoor pool. I really hope our community can come together to make this a reality!”