September 9, 2008

The Aquatic Center Might Sink

By Christian Trejbal [email protected] 381-1645

The shell of Christiansburg's new aquatic center looms above Franklin Street. Its brick walls, blue roof and gaping window holes carve a striking form against the sky.

As construction continues, residents who drive by have to wonder whether the final product will be the promised economic engine and recreation facility or a white elephant. The town has pinned its hopes -- and a lot of money -- on the former.

The aquatic center idea floated around town hall for years. After the success of the recreation center, it seemed the next logical step, a potential boon for the economy and a site for exercise and play.

One of the chief boosters was Town Manager Lance Terpenny, who was captain of the Virginia Tech swim team back in 1978. He persuaded the council, and construction is well under way.

Three pools will serve different needs. One will be a 50-meter, Olympic-size pool suitable for competition and laps. Another, a diving pool, will feature competition diving boards and platforms. And the last one will serve leisure swimmers and will feature a two- story slide.

It sounds great, perhaps even worth the $14.5 million cost, but there are good reasons to worry about whether the town can pull it off.

Start with the building itself. There's no delicate way to put it: It's ugly. At least it will not stand out in a town where attractive, interesting architecture is hard to find.

It is behind schedule, too. The originally planned Jan. 1 opening has been pushed back to spring.

Fortunately, the site shows aesthetic promise overall. Town planners envision a recreational area encircling the building. The existing skate park and surrounding parkland could become a green jewel in the center of town. Trails could someday connect it to the Huckleberry Trail and beyond.

The aquatic center's finances are cause for greater concern.

Virginia Tech is supposed to chip in $5 million over 20 years in return for allowing the swim and diving teams to train and hold competitions there. Such cooperation displays a refreshing regional attitude from the Blacksburg school.

Swim meets and training would not overburden citizen uses, especially in the leisure pool. On the Tech campus, students would likely enjoy greater access to the War Memorial pool where the teams now train and compete.

There is one little problem, though. The town does not yet have that agreement in writing. It broke ground without having hammered out the details of a major funding component.

Tech Associate Athletic Director Jon Jaudon said an agreement exists in principle on 98 percent of the issues. "There is some legal wording being worked out between the attorneys for both parties, and it should be finalized in the near future," he wrote in an e-mail.

Ninety-eight percent is not 100 percent, and until the ink is dry, there is always a chance the deal could fall through.

Even if it goes as planned, the town will almost certainly have to subsidize the center, and residents will pay some sort of membership fees.

In order to help keep those costs down, the town hopes to host swim meets. The ACC championships, NCAA meets and regional club tournaments are all possibilities.

Attracting big-name, profitable swim meets requires more than just a pool. It requires a director who has experience marketing a competition venue to sporting organizations.

Officials promised all along that they would hire just that sort of person. A national search generated 37 applications, and the town took a hard look at a half-dozen top contenders.

They chose the person who ran the Frog Pond.

Terry Caldwell spent two decades as Montgomery County's aquatic special event and youth programmer. By all accounts, she did a good job.

Yet the Frog Pond, the county's only public swimming pool, is not a competition facility. Caldwell spent her time courting families with young swimmers, not the ACC or the NCAA.

Maybe she will demonstrate an uncanny innate ability to bring big events to town. If not, town leaders will have a tough time explaining their decision.

If she succeeds, though, things will go very well for Christiansburg. Competitors and fans will fill hotel rooms, eat at restaurants and shop in local stores. Swim meets will never measure up to Hokie football weekends, but they will provide a welcome economic boost.

The aquatic center has faced some stiff criticism since it was first proposed. Right now, it deserves tempered optimism, but that could change quickly after it opens in the spring.

Trejbal is an editorial writer for The Roanoke Times based in the New River Valley bureau in Christiansburg.

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