Dreaming of a new aquatic center for Charlotte

Plus: Teen Talk slaps hard; Charlotte's top news of the week

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IDEA: A new swimming facility could provide an economic boost. Can we get it done, or will we cede the market to Greensboro?

Greensboro can hold major swimming events, like last year’s Pro Swim Series at the Greensboro Aquatic Center. Although Charlotte is a leader in national youth swimming, the city cannot host major swim meets because existing facilities are inadequate.

By Tim Whitmire

Charlotte needs a national-class aquatic center.

No, it’s not an issue as important in the present moment as Covid-19, affordable housing and homelessness, or addressing the ongoing racial, economic and geographic disparities that plague us.

Our city has a lot of needs, and maybe this is an unnecessary extravagance that we can’t afford. Or maybe, in the 15th-largest city in the country, and one that views itself as a regional and national leader, it’s an idea we should at least consider.

For a couple years, I worked on a behind-the-scenes plan to have an aquatic center included in the vision for the Eastland Mall development. The idea gained some initial support, but as you might have seen last month, Eastland’s redevelopment is going forward with plans for soccer fields, a park, apartments … and no swimming pools. It’s a missed economic opportunity for Charlotte, and swim parents here will probably have to resign themselves to years of traveling to cities that have state-of-the-art swimming facilities … like Greensboro, Atlanta and the Raleigh area.

But is there a path forward? Consider the case for a new aquatic center for our community, and brainstorm with me.

Charlotte has an existing facility, the 31-year-old Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center (MCAC) that sits at the corner of Stonewall and McDowell in Second Ward. But the MCAC is outdated and now inadequate for anything but the smallest state swim meets. In 2015-16, the county closed the facility for a year and spent $8.6M on a renovation that inexplicably did nothing to address the issues that had made the center obsolete as a major meet host.

Why is this important? Major meets — from the pro series event that used to be held at the MCAC, to multi-state USA Swimming-sanctioned Regional and Zone meets, to the N.C. Age Group Championships that attract thousands of youth swimmers and their families from across the state for multiple days — are what justify the existence of large, often publicly owned swim facilities that are expensive and typically run at an operating loss that’s balanced out by the economic activity they generate.

Charlotte has been a leader in national youth swimming for nearly four decades. For many years, we were known for the powerhouse youth and elite program at SwimMAC Carolina; more recently, teams like Aquatic Team of Mecklenburg (where my daughter swam for eight years) and now Mecklenburg Swim Association have emerged alongside SwimMAC as national-profile programs.

But as Charlotte’s year-round swim parents know, attending a big meet, from states to regionals to nationals, involves getting on a plane or packing the car and spending thousands of dollars annually on travel to Greensboro (home of the Greensboro Aquatic Center), Atlanta (Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center) and the Triangle (Cary’s Triangle Aquatic Center).

Playing fields and court sport facilities also can spur youth sports economic development and are certainly cheaper to build than a $30M national-class aquatic center. But that low barrier to entry cuts both ways — a new facility with fields and an indoor armory is great, right up until the city next door decides to build a newer, nicer facility.

Across the nation, there are approximately a dozen aquatic centers with the capacity to host national level meets, and many are clustered in markets (California, New York, the Pacific Northwest) that are much more expensive to travel to than Charlotte. If we choose not to cede the market to Greensboro, we could be a major player.

Back in the summer of 2018, my idea was this:

  • Use the land at Eastland to build an aquatic center with the infrastructure (two 50-meter pools, warmup/cooldown pools, sufficient locker facilities and spectator seating) needed to host national-level meets like short- and long-course Junior Nationals, the U.S. Open, the Speedo pro Series, NCAA Championships, etc.

  • Combined with Class B and C office space that drives weekday traffic, the Eastland Aquatic Center — aggressively programmed with 40+ weekends of activity a year and actively managed for maximum community use, perhaps in partnership with the YMCA — becomes a weekend anchor for hotels, restaurants and retail that make Eastland a 7-day-a-week destination. This justifies the massive investment the city and CATS are making in the long-delayed Central Avenue streetcar project that is projected to terminate at Eastland.

  • Pay for a substantial portion of the project via a land sale or swap in which the MCAC is demolished to make room for more of the residential development that has taken over the rest of the Stonewall corridor. (If Northwood believes there’s demand for a 28-story apartment tower at Midtown, is there any reason to believe you couldn’t sell apartments at the corner of McDowell and Stonewall?)

  • Use development of the Eastland Aquatic Center to partner closely with USA Swimming and its foundation to promote swim Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives that target east Charlotte and other non-wedge areas of the city.

  • In my wildest dreams, I saw cutting an NFL-style deal with USA Swimming: We’ll build this state-of-the-art facility if you commit to bringing the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials to the Spectrum Center in 2024 or 2028. One of the world’s great swim meets, the Trials are currently hosted by Omaha, Neb., which builds a pool in its downtown basketball arena for the event; NBC comes to town for a week of primetime coverage.

Late in the summer of 2018, I had the good fortune to meet one of the principals at Crosland Southeast, the developer that had purchased the Eastland site and was leading its redevelopment. I pitched him on my vision, and he was kind enough to show some enthusiasm, encourage me to develop the idea, and help arrange meetings.

I am both blessed and cursed by being an Idea Guy; I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the Sports Illustrated story I read at the age of 19 about how Billy Payne essentially conjured the 1996 Atlanta Olympics out of thin air.

Sometimes, as when Dave Redding and I launched F3 Nation in 2011 or when I helped launch a signature “Deal Crawl” event for the local Association for Corporate Growth chapter in 2013, the ideas have big impact. Other efforts — like redeveloping the Hawthorne Mill as an Episcopal high school or attracting Amazon’s HQ2 with an outpouring of public creativity — have been less fruitful.

I committed to working an inside game with the Aquatic Center. I did a ton of research, built a full deck of slides, had a lot of phone conversations, and met with anyone and everyone that I thought could help turn this vision into a reality: other aquatic center developers, commercial real estate people, leaders at the CRVA, architects, swimming economic development experts, local swim leaders, the Chamber, CMS, the YMCA, county Park & Rec staff, community leaders, a county commissioner. Everyone was extremely helpful and often very supportive.

I never was able to secure what I’d identified as the real hinge point of the effort — a meeting with County Manager Dena Diorio and Park and Rec Director W. Lee Jones Jr. to sell them on the vision.

In retrospect, the high point of the whole thing was when the Aquatic Center made it onto a set of Crosland renderings for the Eastland redevelopment that were displayed at an east Charlotte community meeting one Saturday in the summer of 2019. At that point, I thought the idea might have some momentum.

As summer turned to fall, though, it became clear David Tepper’s planned MLS franchise was going to be the tail that would wag the dog of the Eastland redevelopment. I waited to see whether there might be room for co-existence or even synergy between the Aquatic Center and Tepper’s Charlotte Football Club academy, but last winter all my contacts went silent and stopped returning emails and phone calls.

In late October, the City Council took up an Eastland proposal centered on a park, an Atrium health facility and the Charlotte FC soccer academy — no mention of an aquatic center. They approved that plan this week.

An idea survives only with an audience. With no apparent path forward at Eastland, the vision for a Charlotte Aquatic Center will survive only with public support and a fresh set of eyes and ideas. Is there a way to redevelop the aging Charlotte Merchandise Mart (now known as The Park Expo & Conference Center) as an Aquatic Center? Is there a home for it in one of the Catawba River-focused developments on the westside? Elsewhere in east Charlotte? Maybe it can be part of the Internet-famous I-277 River project …

So if you’ve got thoughts about an Aquatic Center or people I should talk with, or if you want to broker that meeting with Dena Diorio, let me know. Or maybe you’ve got an idea that could use input from another Idea Guy. You can find me at tim@cxnadvisory.com.

Tim Whitmire is a contributing editor of the Ledger, co-founder of F3 Nation and founder of CXN Advisory, which supports organizational leaders in goal-setting and execution.


Today’s supporting sponsor is Soni Brendle:


Teen talk: Build your vocabulary

Impress and delight the young people in your life by using the words they use. The Ledger shows you how in this occasional Saturday feature.

Today’s word: “slaps”

Part of speech: verb

Definition: to be amazing or extraordinary

Used in a sentence: 

  • “Justin Bieber’s new song ‘Holy’ with Chance the Rapper slaps so hard.”

  • “My grandmother’s pumpkin pie slaps. I can’t wait for a big slice at Thanksgiving.”

Ledger analysis: This use of the word “slaps” makes us think of the word “smash” to describe something that’s extremely successful. It appears to have its roots as a descriptor for music, but has expanded to refer to anything super desirable.

—Cecilia Bolling, age 15


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We want to recognize the important work of groups that are making Charlotte a better place, and maybe introduce you to some worthwhile charities you may not have heard of but would like to support. The deadline is next Friday, Nov. 20. Want to know more? Click here.

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This week in Charlotte: Region suffers intense floods; ballots counted in super-tight chief justice race; middle school reopening delayed; remembering Alex Trebek’s 1984 visit to Charlotte

On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.

Politics

  • Chief justice race heads for recount: (WFAE) The race for N.C. Supreme Court chief justice is headed for a recount after vote tallies Friday showed an extremely close race between incumbent Cheri Beasly and challenger Paul Newby. State law allows for the trailing candidate in a statewide race to seek a machine recount when the margin is 10,000 votes or less. The recount would be completed before the state board certifies results on Nov. 24.

  • Cunningham concedes election: (News and Observer) Democrat candidate Cal Cunningham conceded the U.S. Senate election to Republican incumbent Tom Tillis. Tillis received 48.7% of the vote to Cunningham’s 46.9%.

  • Election results to be finalized: (WCNC) With the deadline to submit absentee ballots passing on Nov. 12, North Carolina county elections boards aim to finalize their results this weekend, declaring winners in several races that are currently too close to call.

Education

  • CMS delays reopening middle schools: (Ledger) The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education voted Tuesday to keep middle school buildings closed to students for an additional six weeks because the district said it lacks enough bus drivers to transport middle schoolers to buildings given social distance restrictions. Middle schoolers will now report to buildings starting on Jan. 5 — the same day as high schoolers. 

  • Federal trial begins for UNC admissions case: (Observer) UNC Chapel Hill is defending its admissions practices in federal court in a trial that began Monday after a 2014 lawsuit alleged the university gave unfair preference to black and Hispanic students over white and Asian-American ones. The suit was organized by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, and is made up of thousands of rejected applicants, current students, and parents.

Local news

  • Intense flooding wreaks havoc: (Observer), (Agenda) Heavy rainfall caused intense flooding throughout the Charlotte region on Thursday. Areas near rivers and creeks were engulfed in deep water leading to county-wide rescue efforts, evacuations, and the closure of part of I-85 along with several businesses. Six people died because of the flooding: four in Alexander County and two in Statesville.

  • Cooper tightens gathering limit: (WRAL) As new Covid cases approach record high numbers across North Carolina, recently re-elected Gov. Roy Cooper extended Phase 3 restrictions for outdoor gatherings and reduced indoor gatherings to 10 people.

  • Charlotte sees rise in power outages: (WBTV) It has been a rough year for the region weather-wise, and as a result, Charlotte has seen a nearly 50% increase in power outages across the city in 2020, according to Duke Energy.

Business

  • New development plans for Dilworth: (Ledger on Tuesday), (Observer on Thursday): The half-acre of land belonging to Alpine Ski Center in Dilworth was sold to Los Angeles-based West Third Street Management and will be redeveloped into retail shops and a rooftop restaurant/bar. It’s one of several Dilworth sites slated for changes.

  • Charlotte hospitals could become early distributors of Covid vaccine: (Observer) After Pfizer and partner BioNTech unveiled progress on a Covid-19 vaccine candidate with a 90% effectiveness rate, Atrium Health and Novant Health both announced plans to store and distribute the vaccine as soon as it is ready.

Sports

  • High school athletes have to wear masks: (WSOC) The North Carolina High School Athletics Association announced that all athletes, coaches and support staff participating in indoor sports will be required to wear masks during all activities, including practices and games, starting Nov. 16.

  • ACC basketball schedule released: (ACC) The Atlantic Coast Conference, home of North Carolina collegiate favorites like Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest University, finally announced its 2020-21 basketball schedule with less than two weeks remaining until opening tip off. Inter-conference games begin December 12 and run through March 6.

  • Buzz City — Mint Edition: (NBA.com) The Charlotte Hornets unveiled the last of their new uniforms and an accompanying alternate court design, bringing back the popular “Buzz City” moniker highlighted by a mint-green primary color with alternating gold and granite pinstripes. The design pays homage to Charlotte’s history as a gold-mining city, its ties to the U.S. Mint, and the North Carolina state rock.

Good reads

  • Remembering when Alex Trebek came to Charlotte: (Ledger) Alex Trebek made hosting “Jeopardy!” look smooth and easy, but as Charlotte radio host Bob Lacey found out when Trebek brought a version of the show to Charlotte in 1984, it’s a tough job. Lacey and others who met Trebek during his visit to Charlotte remember the popular game show host who died Sunday. 

  • Is Austin a possible example for Charlotte? (ui.uncc) Charlotte city leaders will be looking for ways to fund ambitious transportation plans they’ve outlined for the future. One possible source of inspiration could come from Austin, Texas, which just passed a $7.1B transit plan that raises property taxes by about 4% to fund it. Charlotte’s own plan is estimated to cost about $8-12B.

Other Ledger originals

  • Sacré bleu! French restaurants close (Monday): The closure of Amelie’s uptown site is the latest in a string of French-themed restaurant closings in Charlotte. French restaurants are perceived as fancy, which is a tough sell nowadays, and ingredients tend to be more expensive.

  • Rea Road nursery redevelopment (Friday 🔒): A developer has new plans for a nursery on Rea Road in south Charlotte, following the failure earlier this year to build a self-storage facility on the site.

  • Why CMS bus drivers are sidelined (Friday 🔒): CMS bus drivers are taking leave in record numbers in part because of a coronavirus relief law that allows them to take paid leave when schools are closed.

    David Griffith


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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN AdvisoryReporting intern: David Griffith