County Sinks Swim Center
The main topic of discussion at the Board of County Commissioners' (BoCC) final meeting of 2011 on Tuesday morning was the fate of the swim center. Negotiations between the National Swimming Center Corporation (NSCC) - the group seeking to change the City of Palms Park (former home of the Boston Red Sox) into an Olympic caliber swim center – and the county have gone back and forth for the better part of two years and were supposed to have been finalized by the end of this year. A last minute request for another 60-day extension that came in on Tuesday morning, however, caused the Board to unanimously agree to end negotiations with NCSS - citing frustrations with the many changes to the proposal and unclear financing. The commissioners also voted 4-1 (Mann dissenting) in favor of purchasing two small parcels totaling $55,750 as part of the Conservation 20/20 program.
The discussion on the swim center came up during the Administrative Agenda. Commissioners reviewed a report by the Isaac Sports Group – a consulting firm that the BoCC contracted with in October to review the NSCC's proposed Business Plan and talked about the request for another extension that came in that morning.
Commissioner Frank Mann asked about a memo he received shortly before the meeting began concerning NSCC's offer to give the county a non-refundable amount of $10,000 to continue negotiations for another 60 days.
"Yesterday each of us had meetings with Paul Antoine of NSCC, and he gave me the name of someone he was working with who was going to become a partner,” explained Commissioner Tammy Hall. "During that conference call, I said I wasn’t comfortable with the way the financing was going on. Since this was a new entity, they asked for more time, so I asked they present us with non-refundable deposit because we are losing revenue and I felt that I needed something more than their word to keep going past today.”
County Manager Karen Hawes said that an email had come in at 9:19am, stating that the NSCC would place a non-refundable deposit of $10,000 to extend the negotiations for 60 days.
Commissioner Ray Judah asked how the proposal has changed focus.
"Am I to understand that this has now gone from a strict aquatic center to an entertainment/aquatic, with two thirds of the events actually coming from entertainment?” he asked, and Lee County Sports Authority Executive Director Jeff Mielke replied that, "The reason this has evolved is because revenues coming only from swimming will not support the center.”
In recent interviews, Swim Center consultant John Albion has stated that the county has that number wrong, that two-thirds of the revenue will come from swimming and only one-third from entertainment.
Another issue with the commissioners was the report from the consulting firm, which said that NSCC had grossly overestimated revenue returns. There was also an issue with what local swim clubs would be charged to use the swim center.
"Event usage and rental rates for the aquatic facility were the highest in the country,” wrote Isaac Sports Group (ISG) president Stu Isaac in the report.
Lee County Public Works Director Jim Lavender told the Board that if NCSS goes bankrupt and the county has to run it as a swim center that they would be looking at a $834,000 deficit the first year and a $500,000 deficit by year three.
"With it remaining as it is now, we are running at about a $700,000 a year deficit,” he said.
Judah, who has long supported the center, said that he still believes the project "has legs from a business standpoint”, but expressed concerns about the change in usage.
"I really thought we had everything arranged when we talked last time where they were going to put $20 million in escrow, but I’m still not inclined to end this now,” he added. "If the Board is not inclined to pursue it, I would understand, but there are no other options out there within the next 60 days.”
Manning said he was not going to support moving forward.
"I see a memo from our attorney that lists 17 major differences between our draft agreement and their latest proposal,” he said. "We don’t have the budget to back this up if it fails.”
Mann said the bottom line is money.
"Yesterday, I was told that a for-profit corporation will partner with the non-profit who will run it,” he said. "We need to follow the money more clearly here.”
Lavender said that it is his understanding that it is the new entity that has yet to be formed that will provide the money.
"I assume that the new entity will be a for-profit corporation,” he said. "The question surrounding the finances yesterday is that they are no longer willing to put up an escrow. The commitment of the new partner is to arrange the financing.”
Hall said she was not for even one more day with the Board being barred from negotiating with anyone else.
"We need to stop,” she said. "If they want to return to us with a completed package where they have all their stuff together, fine, I would be open to considering it at that time.”
Mann then made a motion, which Hall seconded, to close negotiations with NCSS. It passed unanimously. The commissioners then asked staff to return to the Board with an assessment of how to proceed with reopening the solicitation for bids.
The next meeting of the Board of County Commissioners will be Tuesday, January 10th at the Old Lee County Courthouse in downtown Ft. Myers. For a complete agenda, go to www.leegov.com.