On Nov. 4, Columbia County voters will cast ballots for president, and for a new aquatic and tennis center. The two aren't related, but I hope the large turnout will bring out voters who support progress and improving the quality of life for all residents.
The county has come up with a wonderful plan for the aquatics center - a competition pool for lap swims, competitive practices and swim meets; a warm-up/therapy pool; and a fabulous water park. It will be a beautiful facility for all ages and will be a catalyst for more development in the Lewiston Road/Interstate 20 area.
We need an aquatics center in Columbia County.
OK, some of you will say: "Why? Only a few people will use it." I say build it and you'll see a packed swimming pool most of the hours it's open.
We all know the benefits of swimming and aquatics exercise. We know that everyone should learn to swim. We know that we need more safe and healthy places for kids to play. We know the number of children swimming competitively grows every year. We know that providing facilities like an aquatics center improves the quality of life for all of us, spurs development and makes Columbia County a better place to live.
But yes, it costs money to build - just like it costs to widen roads and build libraries. Places like Gwinnett County - which is very similar demographically to Columbia County - know the value of aquatic centers that provide a broad range of services to citizens. They have 11 aquatic centers now and plan to continue building them as their population grows.
Let me clear up a few misconceptions.
• It's going to raise taxes to build and maintain. The bond referendum is for $18 million and it will be repaid with a slight tax increase. But the SPLOST referendum (also on the Nov. 4 ballot) includes $20 million to retire the bond debt for the new jail and courthouse. That frees up about $2 million a year which will be used to operate the pool so taxpayers won't be saddled with that additional expense.
• County commissioners opted to pay for the aquatics center with bond money rather than SPLOST because they didn't support the project. Actually, commissioners unanimously agreed to put the referendum on the ballot, and all have said that if approved they will give it their complete support. They opted for the referendum because it's such a big-ticket item it would have taken the majority of the SPLOST money, and if there was enough opposition could jeopardize that approval.
• This is just a place for swim teams to practice. That's just part of it. There will be a wonderful water park with slides, fountains and a lazy river. There will be a separate warm pool for swim lessons, therapy, water aerobics and other activities. Adults will be able to swim laps most of the day. And yes, there will be lots of competitive swimmers there every day. The location and amenities make it a regional attraction, and it will bring in high-level swim meets.
• It will be money pit because pools don't make money. A professional company will manage the pool so it will be run like a business. Statesboro has a similar water park that shows a profit each year. There will be user fees, rental fees and revenue from swim meets. The center will spur development in the area - attracting restaurants, hotels and shopping. It's a win-win for everyone.
Right now all those dollars - most from Columbia County - are flowing to Augusta and the Augusta Aquatic Center. It's estimated at least 75 percent of the competitive swimmers in the CSRA are from Columbia County and travel to the Augusta Aquatic Center. While there they eat at restaurants, shop and fill up their gas tanks - all sending sales tax revenue to Augusta. While the Augusta pool doesn't turn a profit, the Augusta Chamber of Commerce has stated that the net financial impact of it is positive when the additional sales tax revenues are added to the equation.
So, on Nov. 4, please vote "yes" to the bond referendum for the aquatics center and tennis complex.
(Jennifer Miller is the president-elect for the Aiken Augusta Swim League and a Martinez resident.)
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