Aquatic center hosts meet as its future is in doubt

By Tom Roussey - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - This weekend the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center is hosting one of its biggest swim meets of the year.  It's doing so under the shadow of looming budget cuts that have put its future in doubt.

Folks at the Sunkissed Invitational -- which features kids from different parts of the U.S. as well as a team from St. Maarten in the Caribbean -- hope the Aquatic Center can avoid the worst of the budget cuts.

At this point county officials say everything's on the table:  the center could close, be sold, have its hours cut, or remain the same.

Mecklenburg County taxpayers pay $380,000 in a year to run the Aquatic Center.  Normally county leaders don't think twice about funding it.  But now park and rec is expected to have to cuts its budget in half next fiscal year, by an amount close to $19 million.  So the center is now "on the table" to face cuts, according to county officials.

At this weekend's meet visitors were not happy to learn that news.  They say the aquatic center has put Charlotte on the swimming map.  It has hosted many big meets including one last year at which Michael Phelps made a comeback after being involved in a marijuana smoking controversy.

"[Charlotte] couldn't have the meets without this facility," said Jim Crampton, who coaches a swim team in Sugarland, Texas.  "It's essential.  They wouldn't be able to have a meet of this caliber at all."

Doug Fleck is the head coach of Team Charlotte Swimming, which is hosting this weekend's meet.  Fleck says the center does a lot for Mecklenburg County; being used for everything from teaching kids to swim to hosting meets to fire department water training.

"It's getting used," Fleck said.  "That's the big thing. It's never a dull moment down here at the aquatic center."

Supporters of the center point out that it brings in a lot of money to the local economy.  The Sunkissed Invitational features teams from places as varied as St. Maarten to New Jersey to South Dakota.

"This meet's hosted by Team Charlotte, but almost every other team's from out of state, so the hotels are full," Crampton said.  "All the hotels around [the center] are full.  You can see them walking here every morning."

Fleck says the aquatic center usually hosts two to three meets a month that draw folks in from outside of town.

The aquatic center should know more about its fate April 1st.  That's when park and rec is supposed to give Mecklenburg County manager Harry Jones its plan to make budget cuts.

The Mecklenburg Aquatic Center opened in 1991.  Mecklenburg County spent $5,855,000 in taxpayer money to build it.