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Seminole takes plunge with dual public pools

The city's first pools will open Tuesday. One will fulfill any little kid's dream of sliding down a frog's tongue.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002


SEMINOLE -- Jim Sheets has fond memories of swimming at the neighborhood pool in Toledo, Ohio, in the 1960s. His mother would hand him 50 cents and he would head down the street. One quarter would get him inside the gate and the other would buy him a cold soda.

Although admission and drinks will cost more, come Tuesday, kids -- and adults -- in the Seminole area will be able to cool off at the city's first-ever pool.

"It's here," said Sheets, the city's recreation director. "We've done it. Seminole has come a long way in providing recreation facilities."

The Family Aquatic Center has two pools: a junior Olympic-size pool with six 25-meter lanes and a children's pool where kids can slide along the tongue of a plastic frog. Other amenities include two 28-foot umbrellas for parents to sit under while their children frolic in the pool, and a concession area where patrons can buy a $4 chef's salad and a $1.25 hot dog.

The completion of the aquatic area marks the end of a $6.1-million project, which began in 1991 when the city paid local businessman Hardy Huntley $1.5-million for 6.5 acres and a former school building to use as a recreation center. Two years later, the city paid Huntley $1-million for another 9 acres on the site.

When the city asked residents in 1996 what recreation programs and activities it should provide during the next decade, swimming was at the top of the list. So Seminole included the pools as part of a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion of the rundown building.

At the time, the request didn't seem possible. Some in Seminole questioned how the city could afford to build a top-notch recreation facility, let alone an aquatic area.

In 1999, Seminole voters approved a referendum that paved the way for the project. To finance the undertaking, the most expensive in the city's history, the city sold bonds guaranteed by the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax.

"Everybody told us this would never happen," said City Council member Pete Bengston. "Well, we got the building open and now the pool. There's more on those grounds than we ever anticipated."

Two years ago, workers began transforming the building at 9100 113th St. N into a 58,000-square-foot recreation complex with a gymnasium, racquetball courts, game room, nursery, meeting rooms, arts and crafts studio and auditorium with stage lighting and a sound system. Outdoor features include two basketball courts, a playground, multipurpose fields for baseball, softball, soccer and flag football, paved parking lots and the pools. The athletic fields opened in the fall of 2000, and the recreation complex opened last October.

Now, the aquatic center.

Following the trend of other communities, city officials wanted to build a kiddie pool with cool features. The 4,000-gallon pool will have a zero-depth entry, a colorful frog slide and a play unit with a sea serpent, ladybugs and a mushroom.

The children's pool that opened last summer at Highland Family Aquatic Center in Largo is a big hit, says Matt Spoor, Largo's aquatics manager. The 65,000-gallon pool saw an attendance of 17,000 and generated $50,000 in revenue from July 4 through Oct. 20, he said.

"It's going to be a huge success," Spoor said of the Seminole children's pool. "It's just the newest and latest thing out there."

The large pool, which takes 135,000 gallons of water to fill, will serve many purposes. It will open early three days a week for those who swim laps or do water exercises. Then at noon, "it's a free-for-all," Sheets said. The evening hours are geared for families.

The aquatic center will be closed to the public from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday so the center's 200 summer campers can swim.

Swimmers will be charged only one daily fee, allowing them to come back to the pool later in the day. "It's not our goal to gouge folks," he said. "Once you're in, you're good for the day."

The city hired Jerry Span, a former lifeguard for the city of St. Petersburg, as its head guard. He will oversee a staff of seven.

For now, the city will not offer swim lessons, Sheets said. But he plans to develop a program that will offer lessons and exercise classes by next summer.

Sheets said 5,000 people have joined the recreation center since it opened in October. It now has 7,000 members, he said.

Many will be glad to know the gymnasium will reopen on Monday. A water leak forced the city to close the room in March until repairs were made and the hardwood floor was replaced.

"That's the beauty," Sheets said. "All of this construction goes away."

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