The facility now known simply as the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex has a rich history. According to city archives, the 53-year-old complex has been the site of 10 world records in competitive swimming events dating back to 1966. The last one happened in 2002, when swimming star Michael Phelps set a world record in the 400-meter individual medley.
But major swimming and diving competitions stopped coming to the complex years ago as the facility deteriorated. The city condemned the grandstand seating area in 2011 after its underside started shedding chunks of concrete.
The aquatic complex also fails to meet standards for international swimming and diving competition set by Switzerland-based FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation), recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the premier administrative authority for water sports worldwide. Several years ago, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, which has long made its home at the pool, considered plans to move to California.
Now though, a $27-million renovation project and a new 30-year deal with the hall of fame look set to return the complex to the heart of competitive swimming while also preserving a local landmark in a rapidly changing part of the city. Plans in the project include – all new, international competition-standard pools, new grandstands, new bathrooms and a new teaching pool.
None of the city’s $27 million will be spent on two leased buildings that house the hall of fame, including one with a roof in the shape of waves in front of the aquatic complex on Seabreeze Boulevard. The other is along the western edge of the swimming and diving complex, next to the Intracoastal Waterway. Nevertheless, the public investment in the aquatic complex could lead to greater private investment in the hall of fame – and perhaps better marketing for both.
“We can build upon the momentum that the city has produced with their capital infusion and come in with our own capital infusion,” says Brett Rutemiller, publisher of Swimming World Magazine, the flagship of a swimming media business in Phoenix called Sports Publications International. “We’re going to start a capital fundraising campaign to basically upgrade the footprint” of the hall of fame buildings. “I think we raised close to $10 million or $12 million in the past to help with that front wave building. I’m not afraid of those numbers.”
As city commissioners moved toward their agreement earlier this year on the $27-million fix, Rutemiller was engineering the merger of Swimming World Magazine and the International Swimming Hall of Fame – a deal that had been in the works since late last year. “I agreed to do that in November of last year with the understanding that I would oversee the merger and be the CEO of the hall of fame,” Rutemiller says.
He says a stock transfer in August completed the merger and turned the International Swimming Hall of Fame into “the parent nonprofit corporation, which now owns all of the Sports Publications entities,” including Swimming World Magazine, started in 1960, and such offshoots as SwimmingWorld.com and Swimming World TV. That organizational marriage isn’t as unlikely as it might seem at first glance. “A lot of the founders for Swimming World Magazine are also charter members of International Swimming Hall of Fame,” Rutemiller says.
Rutemiller wants a tighter link between the hall of fame and the aquatic complex. Among other plans, “I also want to build skyboxes at our building that overlook the aquatic complex,” he says. “They would be like VIP suites.” He says that is the type of capital expense that a successful multimillion-dollar fundraising drive might cover.
Joint marketing of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex eventually could lead to a common name for both. “Our new 30-year lease allows for the aquatic complex to revert back to its original name: The International Swimming Hall of Fame Aquatic Complex, Fort Lauderdale,” Rutemiller says.
As the city remodels the swimming complex, Rutemiller also has plans to bring the hall of fame into the 21st century. “We’re in the process of doing multi-media and video of all our exhibits and having three-minute vignettes of what each thing has,” he says. “There are new opportunities for museums so be more interactive,” such as the ability to “pass your cellphone over a digital footprint that allows you to get a video.” The hall of fame already has started converting a library at its Fort Lauderdale home to an internet-based television studio with equipment from a TV studio in Phoenix that Rutemiller has closed. At its new studio in Fort Lauderdale, a hall of fame host will be able to conduct face-to-face interviews with, say, Olympians in town for a swimming competition, as well as remote interviews with swimming and diving stars at events elsewhere. But the focus will be Fort Lauderdale. By promoting competitive events at the city’s complex, Rutemiller expects to draw greater attention and patronage to the hall of fame.
“Through our multi-media publications, we are going to work hard to bring back championships and national events” that were held in years past at Fort Lauderdale’s aquatic complex, he says, citing the city’s support. “The $27 million will certainly pay off in visitors at hotels and restaurants.
“We are going to become a marketing arm of the city of Fort Lauderdale, and we are going to bill this as an international destination.”
The Treading‑Water Years
It has taken decades for the city to reach consensus on redoing the aquatic complex in a configuration compliant with FINA standards for competition in swimming, diving, water polo, and “artistic” swimming, also known as synchronized swimming.
Among other wrong turns, the city hired and fired a contractor called RDC that drew up a never-built redesign of the aquatic complex that put the diving platform on top of a three-story parking garage. The city commission terminated its contract with RDC, short for Recreational Design and Construction, when the company raised its price for rebuilding the aquatic complex to nearly $40 million after signing a $32 million contract. The Sun-Sentinel reported that RDC had downsized its project from a $76 million version adding commercial space, restaurants and a wave pool.
“I’ve always been an advocate for having some sort of facility – whether it’s a wave pool or a splash pad – that would cater to the residents and the tourists, not so much swimming and diving people,” says Fort Lauderdale resident and former US Olympic diving coach Tim O’Brien. “I think that could still happen.”
One thing that won’t happen is construction of a diving platform atop a parking garage, thanks in part to objections by O’Brien. He and his father, former Olympic coach Ron O’Brien, protested in person to officials of RDC, the contractor the city fired. “We were adamant about not building that on top of a three-story parking garage,” he says. “When you’re on a 10-meter platform, you’re already 30 feet above the water. So, it’s really 60 or 70 feet up in the air, and the wind can be treacherous. If you get a bad day, and you have a big event, you’d probably have to cancel.”
O’Brien, now a FINA diving judge, was part of a long-running local debate over how to redo the aquatic complex as a FINA-compliant venue. “The facility has fallen behind the standards … Things have changed over the years,” he says, recalling personal discussions with former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle about plans to renovate the complex in the early 1990s. “This has been a long time coming,” O’Brien says. “You can only have so many hotels and bars on the beach. It’s nice to have something that has some history. It’s part of the city and hopefully, moving forward, an even bigger part.”
If it becomes a bigger part of the city’s budget, the project conceivably could go awry again. The city gave the job of executing the complex’s makeover to a Greeley, Colorado-based general contractor, Hensel Phelps, and its design team.
Could Hensel Phelps raise its price beyond the contracted amount, as RDC did earlier? “I don’t think it’s very likely,” Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman says. “With the previous contractor, there were some delays due to rethinking and changing the scope of the project … I think if we stay on track, we won’t have those issues again.”
On its website, Hensel Phelps summarizes the project as the “demolition and new construction of all swimming pools to upgrade [them] and meet international swimming and diving competition standards, new grandstand seating for spectators, new public restrooms and a new teaching pool.” The general contractor also lists the expected completion date as “summer 2020.”
Laura Voet, the manager of the aquatic complex, says the reconstruction of the complex will achieve FINA compliance in several ways that include making the main competition pool longer, wider and deeper. It will be 53 meters long, up from 50 meters now, and two to three meters deep, compared to 1.3 meters now. The swimming lanes will widen to 2.5 meters from the current 2.1 meters. The diving pool will expand in surface size to 625 square meters from 415 square meters now, and its depth will increase to six meters from the current 5.4 meters.
The first task at hand for Hensel Phelps is delivering detailed plans to city staff for review. “That’s going to be a few months of work,” Feldman says. “Then they have to go through permitting like any other [real estate] project.” The city manager says the aquatic-complex permitting process possibly could require public hearings, as did the process to issue building permits for the new municipal parking garage one block west of the beach on Las Olas Boulevard.
A Changing Neighborhood
As Hensel Phelps recently prepared for permitting, city officials were finalizing the execution of the new 30-year contract to lease the two buildings that bookend the aquatic complex to the hall of fame. The terms are friendly. The organization, also known by its acronym ISHOF, pays $1 a year for rent and an annual maximum of $5,000 for maintenance, plus $10,000 a year for utilities.
Terms of the new 30-year lease also entitle the city government to half of the revenue from ISHOF sponsorships, or the sale of naming rights, or any competition-related events at the aquatic complex that ISHOF hosts.
ISHOF had been leasing the city-owned buildings on a month-to-month basis after its previous 30-year lease deal with Fort Lauderdale expired in 2015. That was the same year ISHOF announced it would relocate to a new aquatic complex in Santa Clara, California. The big move never actually happened, but it did little to advance plans to renew Fort Lauderdale’s aging aquatic complex.
“As we were trying to figure out what we wanted it to be, we needed to know whether the hall of fame was going to stay or not,” Feldman says. “We had a couple of starts and stops over the last decade in terms of what we wanted the facility to be. Ultimately, we settled on a rehab of the existing facility, bringing it back to the first-class condition that it was known for.”
The pending upgrade of the aquatic complex is part of a broader pattern of redevelopment of older properties in the “South Beach” section of Fort Lauderdale, the A1A corridor south of Las Olas Boulevard to the 17th Street Causeway. Major redevelopments are unfolding just north and a bit south of the aquatic complex at the Bahia Mar resort and the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina.
Across the street from the aquatic complex, a 1950s-vintage retail property called Aquatic Complex Plaza will be torn down to make way for a new hotel. Tenants were starting to vacate the property in late summer, says Aito “AJ” Yaari, a Fort Lauderdale businessman.
Last year, Yaari and another investor sold the tired retail property at 435 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. for $18.7 million after getting city approval to redevelop it as a hotel with as many as 213 rooms. “I have a very good relationship with the buyer, and when the hotel is up and running, I will run their food and beverage,” says Yaari, an entrepreneur with investments in restaurants, retail businesses and real estate.
Yaari also serves on the Beach Redevelopment Advisory Board, which advises on public investments in the city’s barrier island, and he is optimistic about the area. Among other investments in his portfolio, he shares ownership of the entire block where the Elbo Room is located, except for the famous bar property itself on the corner at Las Olas Boulevard and A1A.
The upcoming aquatic complex project, the redevelopment of Bahia Mar and the pending replacement of Aquatic Complex Plaza with a new hotel are part of what Yaari calls a “new and improved gateway to Fort Lauderdale Beach.” Though he calls the site of the aquatic complex and hall of fame “one of the most valuable properties in the county,” Yaari has lingering doubt about the planned reconstruction of the antiquated aquatic complex.
“In a perfect world, I don’t like putting good money on old money. You know, $27 million is a lot of money to remodel something with an older design,” he says. “But that’s what we are left with, and I’m happy that it’s getting done … We’ve been going back and forth for years on this.”