Leesburg makes it clear, race not factor in placement of new aquatic center

Leesburg commissioners were praised and applauded Monday night as they made a statement to area residents with the planned placement of the city’s new aquatic center.

At staff’s recommendation, commissioners agreed to spend $352,250 to purchase 2.75 acres of land off Pine Street and Childs Street from the Community Development Corporation (CDC) of Leesburg.

Top photo: Leesburg commissioners agreed Monday night to purchase this property on Pine Street, between Canal Street and Childs Street, for its new $2.86 million aquatic complex, which would include a 5,800-square-foot outdoor multi-use pool with eight lanes, springboard diving and a shallow-water recreational zone with interactive play features. Bottom photo: The property across the street on the south side of Pine Street could be used to house commercial businesses that would benefit from and complement the aquatic facility.

Mayor John Christian, who abstained from the otherwise unanimous vote because he’s also the chairman of the CDC, said the commission’s decision sends a clear message that race wasn’t a factor in deciding where the new aquatic center and pool was going to be located. He said for years Canal Street was the racial dividing line in the city, so for the aquatic complex to be located off nearby Pine Street – historically the black commercial district – is a positive “moral decision” for the commission.

“When this came up as an option for the CDC to work with the city, we didn’t look at it as cash flow,” Christian said. “We looked at it as this is going to change the neighborhood. It’s going to send a resounding statement to the city of Leesburg that there’s no more dividing line, that this city is one city and race wouldn’t be a deciding factor.

Leesburg Mayor John Christian, who also serves as chairman of the Community Development Corporation (CDC) of Leesburg, talks about the significance of locating the city’s new aquatic center off Pine Street during Monday night’s Commission meeting.

Christian said the decision sends the message that the days of Leesburg being divided by race are long gone.

“We’re going to do what’s best for the entire city,” he said. “So I think this is a win for everybody.”

“Amen,” Mayor Pro-Tem Elise A. Dennison quickly added.

Pernell Mitchell, a bail bondsman who also owns group homes for people with developmental disabilities, said he believes this group of commissioners will be remembered as great innovators.

“I know the area and I know what improvement is going to take place just by bringing in something as simple as a pool to pull the community together,” the former longtime Leesburg Police sergeant said. “The improvement that you are doing to the city of Leesburg, erasing racial lines where we can one day look and see Leesburg and not this part of Leesburg and the black part of Leesburg, you are doing a great job and I tip my hat to you.”

Left: The area marked above shows the property the city has agreed to purchase for a new Leesburg aquatic center. Right: The property off Pine Street is in a blighted area and it’s believed the new aquatic center will lead to other positive changes in the neighborhood.

Bettye Stevens Coney, an author, poet and former school principal who grew up in Leesburg, agreed.

“What a wonderful day this is,” she said. “This is the opportunity for diversity to wave its flag.”

The commission has earmarked $2.68 million for the aquatic complex, which will replace the aging pool at the Dabney Recreation Complex and the already demolished Venetian Guardian facility.

Pool proposal favored by Leesburg commissioners.
Leesburg City Manager Al Minner

The new aquatic center is scheduled to include a 5,800-square-foot outdoor multi-use pool with eight lanes, springboard diving, a shallow-water recreational zone with interactive play features, a 3,500-square-foot bathhouse, a shade structure, hardscape/landscape design, irrigation design, perimeter security fencing and a parking lot.

City Manager Al Minner noted that the location on Pine Avenue would put the new aquatic center and pool in an area that is central to Leesburg. And he said that by being close to State Road 44, it could put the center in a position to host events and be a regional attraction.

Coach Hubert O. Dabney

Commissioners also agreed to spend $285,300 for design services related to the new aquatic center. The contract is with CPH Inc. of Sanford and will include site check studies and a conceptual site plan; preliminary design; final design; observation of construction; hardscape, landscape and irrigation design; schematic design; design development; construction documents; permitting/bidding; and construction contract administration.

This past February in a lengthy discussion about the pool, commissioner instructed Minner to come up with a master plan for the pool site and bring it before them. At a June 2018 Commission meeting, emotions ran high as some residents complained about the closure of the Venetian Gardens pool. And others requested that the pool at the new aquatic center be named for the late Hubert O. Dabney, a longtime coach and teacher who was extremely active in the community and was instrumental in getting the city to build a swimming pool in the Carver Heights community in 1954 – a facility he oversaw and used to teach swimming lessons to black children and adults from throughout the local area.