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Aquatics park is still a possibility

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At an Alachua County Commission Special Meeting on January 7, the commission will be considering various locations for an aquatics park. The backup documents call attention to two sites: the Wacahoota Tract on SR 121 southwest of Gainesville and Diamond Sports Park in Newberry. 

The discussion appears to be in response to an earlier suggestion that the County Commission should try to partner with Gator Water Polo and Gator Swim Club to create a new aquatics facility that will serve their clubs but also provide swim lessons and camp programs for residents of the area. The suggestion came after the commission rejected a proposal from the aquatics clubs to buy Camp McConnell and build the aquatics facility there. At the time, the commission decided they should stick with their earlier decision to sell Camp McConnell to Friendship Circle, but that deal fell through in early October.

Although the founders of the aquatics clubs will participate in the discussion about proposed sites, they are still hoping to purchase Camp McConnell and have revised their previous proposal.

Alachua County purchased Camp McConnell in 2017 for a little over $1 million with Wild Spaces Public Places funds. They negotiated with various buyers during 2019, but all of the deals eventually fell through. Gator Water Polo, which will be known as Camp Florida if their plan succeeds, presented a proposal in September to buy the land, build a state-of-the-art aquatics facility, and make it available for use by area residents. 

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At the October 8 County Commission meeting, the commission discussed the fact that the deal with Friendship Circle had fallen through, and they talked about the Camp Florida proposal. The main objections to the Camp Florida proposal came from two commissioners: Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said he preferred to sell it outright rather than accept Camp Florida’s offer to pay $100k per year for 10 years, and Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler, who has been outspoken about her desire to keep the camp as county property, was not in favor of selling it at all.

Camp Florida has now presented a new proposal for purchasing Camp McConnell. The main difference is that they are now “in the process of securing” United States Department of Agriculture Community Facilities financing to purchase the property. They are offering $1 million cash to purchase the property outright, and then they will launch a capital campaign to raise money for the necessary capital improvements. 

Camp Florida is offering a public-private partnership with the county for the purpose of providing swim lessons and camps to underprivileged youth. They are hoping to renovate the existing facilities and make them safe in time to open for camps in the summer of 2020. As soon as the camps are done, they hope to begin work on two new pools, a 50m Olympic pool and a 30m dive well/warm-up pool. They plan to create a facility that “will rival some of the best facilities offered around the country.”

Along with sports camps and swim meets that will attract families to the area, contributing to additional bed night taxes, Camp Florida intends to offer camp experiences to the School Board of Alachua County and charter schools. According to the proposal, Camp Crystal is maxed out, and Camp Florida will provide another facility to ensure kids get to experience the outdoors and learn to swim. They also plan to host a variety of activities, including “science camps, science walks, enrichment for art and PE classes, swim lessons, archery, ropes courses, a rock wall, teacher in-services, team building, retreats, and many more opportunities for the youth and residents of Alachua County to enjoy the beauty of this property.”

They will also offer Public Lap Swim and public access to tennis courts and basketball courts, and the camp will be made available to outside groups such as churches, scouts, and businesses.