“I have been after this project since 1968 and we have come so close on at least three occasions and this time I thought for sure it was going to happen. But now, I don’t see it happening in my lifetime.” Such was the hopeless commentary offered by Parks and Recreation Chairman of the Board Richard Ward who has been lobbying for a community pool in South Miami for 43 years.
The County Community Development Block Grant (CDBC) of nearly $200,000 that kept the pool proposal above water is set to expire at year’s end. The city commission requested an extension from the county and the response apparently has led them to believe it will not be renewed.
Mayor Phillip Stoddard offered his surmise of the situation: “The county has refused to extend the CDBG money past December and it takes roughly two years from start to finish to build a pool. When I was elected, the plan in front of me presented by the design firm could not work economically because the city had asked for a pool to be built within certain environmental considerations. What we got was a racing and training pool whose operating costs could exceed over $200,000 annually from the general fund.”
However, it appears the commission is throwing out the baby with the bath water. According to Rowena Crawford, who is assistant director of Housing and Community Development for Miami-Dade County which oversees the CDBGs, no decision on extending the grant or not has been made by the county.
“A request was made for an extension and we advised the city that when they are close to the expiration date they can send a request,” she said. “We did not tell them we were not going to extend the contract. The county is committed to this project and we have no reason not to extend it.”
It appears unusual that city officials would lead the public and even the chair of Parks and Recreation to believe that the Murray Pool proposal was dead in the water when the county representative seems to be saying something totally different.
Crawford went on to say, “They are misinformed. They are asking for an extension we typically do for most contracts. The county has some concerns about delays with the project but we are working with the current administration to move the project forward.”
Perhaps the dismal speculation is based on historical precedents. Both Ward and Stoddard said that many of the interested parties who stepped forward over the years to attempt to make the pool a reality were eventually exhausted by the infighting and lack of agreement on the most benign issues such as light bulbs and solar panels.
Miren Oca is a swimming instructor who runs Ocaquatics Swim School in Kendall. She has been in the business for more than 17 years and works with area school programs such as Gulliver Academy’s Splash Camp for children.
Oca offered to subsidize the costs of operating the pool and also give free swimming lessons to area children as operator of the proposed facility. In fact, according to Mayor Stoddard, Oca drove some of the changes that would have allowed the pool to break even cost-wise.
According to Ward, “We had a volunteer who was willing to run the pool and pay for maintenance herself and offer free swimming lessons. But at ensuing commission meetings she was so overwhelmed by the ‘what if’ scenarios offered by the naysayers, she eventually said there was too much conflict and walked away.”
Oca said, “As a former resident of South Miami, I remember how far back the proposed pool went and it was so exciting. It seemed like it was finally going to happen. There were many well- intentioned people, but there was so much energy and passion that it bogged down the process and it wasn’t moving in a direction whereby it would happen before the deadline. It is unfortunate because we were so close and it appears there were residents involved who don’t trust the people they put in office to make decisions. They may be well intentioned but it can bog down the process and then nothing gets done.”
Sharon McCain is a South Miami resident and community activist always in attendance at city commission meetings. McCain is an outspoken opponent of the Murray Pool. She has been banned in the past from meetings for her distractive outbursts and gesticulations when presentations and conversations are in progress. During one week in March during discussions for Oca of Ocaquatics to manage the pool, she sent over ten pages of emails to the city.
An email from her to Mayor Stoddard dated March 3, 2011, said: “This pool is no longer about teaching children in the CRAto swim, it is about satisfying Phil’s ego, helping Mrs. Oca triple her income and building her a facility, and creating a platform for Brian. Shame on you, shame on Mrs. Oca and shame on our ex-city attorney for presenting an awful contract, and continually allowing her to manipulate our city and have us think she is the only game in town.” In the email, McCain also denies being accused of heckling during meetings and she requested financial disclosures from Oca to “build more confidence.”
In a preceding email, McCain did request that an advertised workshop regarding the pool and the potential new operator be scheduled. After reiterating her request to the mayor for the workshop, she stated: “You have refused to do so, and tonight is the night where this ‘operator’ gets a contract. Certainly not the transparency we were promised when each one of you were elected.”
At one point in the early days of the pool campaign, the city had bond money in the amount of $795,000 and a potential location for a community center and pool, according to Ward. The Community Redevelopment Agency more recently offered a $200,000 matching grant to the county money, which Ward believes is now not renewable because of the many delays.
Said Ward, “From my point of view, the county was extending the time we could use the grant and the money was available, but with all of the uncertainty, inconsistency… although I believe everyone on the dais was eventually drawn to support it. However, I hate to say it, but due to a lack of leadership, we are in this unfortunate position. Someone should have been leading the charge to make the pool a reality.”
Ward said of the detractors to the pool vision: “I guarantee you those naysayers are the same people sitting comfortably at home with their own pool in a cozy backyard. What do they care if folks who cannot afford their own backyard pool swelter in the August heat? A community pool where residents can joyfully get refreshed in the cool water among family and friends and where children can swim safely under adult supervision is what this community has needed for a long time.”
Mayor Stoddard said, “I wanted the pool to happen and it breaks my heart we are in this situation. People with pools in their backyards pay an arm and a leg for upkeep and often rarely use it. We could have had one for peanuts that everyone could have enjoyed. I was a strong supporter to get this and still am. We hope to repair relationships with the YMCA and try to work together to make this happen yet.”
As long as the pool is located in the Murray Park area where the most amount of residents can enjoy the luxury of a cool swim on a hot day, Parks and Recreations Chair Ward is willing to still offer the project a life raft and although skeptical, hopes to see it happen before it is too late for him to take a dip.