After years of false starts, Fort Lauderdale finally broke ground Friday on a multimillion-dollar remake of the International Swimming Hall of Fame pool complex at the beach.
“Finally, today, we’re going to see the beginning of something that should have happened years ago,” Mayor Dean Trantalis said to a crowd of swimming and diving royalty, and community leaders. Trantalis promised the new Aquatic Center would “dazzle,” calling it a “game-changing project that will redefine the beach for the next generation.”
Headlines over the years marked the endless struggle over the Hall of Fame pools, also known as the Aquatic Center: “New Lauderdale aquatic center may hit a snag,” “Swim center creating waves,” “Fort Lauderdale gets new sticker shock over swim center plans,” “Swim center plans sinking,” “Swim hall scaled back.”
Under a $27 million plan approved last August, the existing grandstands, pools, dive well and dive platform will be redone over the coming 18 months, by Hensel Phelps Construction.
At the same time, the locker rooms will be renovated in a $1 million project — itself a long-awaited improvement that drew cheers from the audience at Friday’s groundbreaking. In a separate effort, the International Swimming Hall of Fame museum, which has buildings on the east and west ends of the property, will launch its own fundraising campaign for a renovation.
The Hall of Fame/Aquatic Center remake is important in the swimming world. Olympians were heavily involved in the planning. And in the audience Friday sat Olympic gold medalist Caeleb Dressel, the American 50-meter freestyle record holder, who was present as a representative of USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport.
Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte also was among the Olympic swimmers, divers and coaches at Friday’s event, where officials said they’d like to elevate the tired complex to its former prominence, once again attracting the best in the sport. Ten world records have been set there, according to the city.
Renowned Olympic diving coach Ron O’Brien said he remembered the Aquatic Center when it was “a performing center. It was great.” Now, he said at Friday’s event, “it isn’t up to standard.”
Jesse Vassallo, an Olympian and former world record holder, said he starting swimming in the Aquatic Center pools when he was 11.
“This was our home, and we were sad it wasn’t kept up,” Vassallo said. “The whole world looks up to this place.”
“We can never ever, ever neglect this site again,” City Commissioner Steve Glassman said, and applause broke out. “That is almost the secret shame of what we’re doing today.”
As officials spoke about a gleaming future, swimmers in the pools went about their daily stroke work, in sunny, 80-degree weather.
Fort Lauderdale’s place in swimming history dates to the 1920s, to the oceanfront, saltwater Casino Pool, directly east of the Hall of Fame pools. Competitive swimmers from around the country traveled to Fort Lauderdale to swim, sparking an interest that led to the city’s spring break fame.