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Monday, July 22, 2024

Making A Splash

The land at the entrance of Garvin Park in the Jacobsville neighborhood has long been a sports hub in Evansville. Home to Bosse Field and Evansville North Little League fields at the end of North Main Street, this location’s latest addition marks a new chapter in River City athletics.

Opened in October 2021, the Deaconess Aquatic Center is a 75,000-square-foot facility featuring a 950,000-gallon competition pool named after Olympic gold medalist and Evansville native Lilly King, along with a separate 91,000-gallon leisure pool and outdoor splash pad.

The “Stretch 50” competition pool is equipped with two moveable fiberglass bulkheads capable of creating seven different course configurations for cross course swimming, adjusted length swimming, water polo, and more. A separate 13-foot diving well and four springboards sit on the south end of the pool. The diving well is an important aspect for hosting high school and collegiate competitions and tournaments that include both swimming and diving.

In a typical 50-meter pool, the bulkheads and lane lines are rearranged to accommodate diving, but with a Stretch 50 both the lanes and diving coexist.

“Overall, the goal with every project is to design for what matters most. With this project, it was all about designing an environment for every type of person — kids, community, competitive swimmers, visitors, and everyone who experiences this facility,” says Project Architect Jennifer Kissel with design and engineering firm Hafer.

The pool features relay touch pads, a timing system, full webcasting capabilities along with two large LED scoreboards, and a large mural dedicated to King.
Overlooking the competition pool is a mezzanine that seats about 1,000 spectators, with the ability to accommodate more than 1,000 bleacher seats on the pool deck if necessary.

“A lot of thought was put into the overall experience,” says Kissel. “The size, location, width of the deck, and height of the seating was all determined from how well the spectators can see all sides of the competition pool from every seat.”

On the other side of the facility, the recreational pool has four 25-yard lanes, zero-depth entry area, splash features, basketball goals, and space for swim lessons. Each pool is ADA compliant and contains its own locker rooms, all encapsulated by more than 50,000 square feet of tile installed by Fulton Tile and Stone.

Two east end meeting rooms are enclosed with full-height glass windows, providing a clear view of Bosse Field and out into Garvin Park. In the corridor behind the competition pool is the Wall of Champions, which celebrates Evansville’s Paralympic gold medalist swimmer Mikaela Jenkins and the city’s swimming history through interactive monitors.

The $30 million state-of-the-art aquatic center signals a new era for swimming in Evansville and will serve competitive and recreational swimmers while attracting sports tourism to the city.

Humble Beginnings
Lloyd Pool, the city-run indoor swimming facility in Igleheart Park on North First Avenue, had fallen into disrepair. Built in 1975, the deteriorated and outdated pool was on its last legs by the early 2010s. Though it still hosted competitive swimming practices and meets for Evansville’s high school teams, it could no longer host USA swimming meets for club teams such as the Greater Evansville Aquatic Team due to its limited specifications and crumbling infrastructure.

“When Lloyd Pool had its final pool liner put on in 2012, we knew planning for a replacement had to begin immediately,” says Deputy Mayor and Interim Parks Director Steve Schaefer. “Our goal was to build a facility that met the needs of the community, whether it was competitive or recreational swimming as well as a place to have fun.”

The lack of a proper indoor public pool throughout the last decade drove swimmers and youth tournaments and championships elsewhere, such as the Castle High School Natatorium built in 2009 in Warrick County.

“I was one of the folks who was, in the fourth grade, being shuffled to the old Lloyd Pool on a bus from the EVSC,” says Shawn McCoy, chief executive officer of Deaconess Health System, the main sponsor for the Aquatic Center. “I don’t feel like I’ve aged that much over that period of time, but the Lloyd definitely looks bad. It needed to be replaced.”

In 2006, then-Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel formed an aquatics task force to assess the demand for city swimming pools, both outdoor and indoor. Two outdoor recreational pools, Mosby Pool in Howell Park and Rochelle-Landers Pool near Lincoln School, were built in 2009 as a result. The task force’s report also included an idea for a centrally located indoor facility, but little had been initiated from the recommendation in the years that followed.

In 2010, a group of swimming enthusiasts and parents of high school swimmers who were frustrated by the lack of progress on a city-run aquatic center and the continued deterioration of Lloyd Pool began meeting to advocate for the construction of a new public pool for both competitive and recreational swimmers.

“We knew if this thing really was going to gain any traction at all, it had to be more than just about competitive swimming,” says Dr. Andrew Tharp, an ophthalmologist at Vision Care Center whose children were involved in local swimming. “It really had to be something where we had community buy-in.”
Tharp, along with others such as Tucker Publishing Group President Todd Tucker and Robert W. Baird & Co. financial advisor Eric Miller, crossed paths at local swim competitions, where discussions about the need for a new aquatic center grew.

The group — calling themselves the Grassroots Task Force and including swim coaches, health care professionals, EVSC and Catholic Diocese of Evansville school officials, and community leaders — held its first few meetings at the former Tucker Publishing Group office inside the General Cigar Company building on Court Street.

A few years later, the grassroots campaign approached the office of newly elected Mayor Lloyd Winnecke to pitch the idea of replacing Lloyd Pool.

“We had only been in office a few short months, and we didn’t really think we were in the position to jump into such a large capital effort in that time,” says Winnecke. “But Dr. Tharp and the others with him did plant a really important seed, and that was we needed to start the planning to replace a pool that had served our city since 1975.”

In 2016, after persistent campaigning by the Grass Roots Task Force, Winnecke’s administration returned to the idea of replacing Lloyd Pool, forming the Mayor’s Aquatic Center Task Force to research the needs of the city to grow swimming. The Aquatic Center Task Force was composed of leaders in the public and private sectors, including Tharp, Schaefer, Miller, Tucker, President of Deaconess Health System Dr. James Porter, and City Councilman Jonathan Weaver, among others.

The next steps were identifying the ideal site for a new aquatic center and determining the budget. The project would have to be funded through a public-private partnership. Among the multiple sites reviewed were land adjacent the Southern Indiana Career and Technical Center on Lynch Road and even Roberts Park.

In fall 2018, the City Council approved up to $25 million in bonds for the facility, a decision influenced after Lilly King made a strong pitch for the project. Other financing included $5 million from the city’s Casino Fund, $4 million from the Jacobsville Tax Increment Financing (TIF) fund, $700,000 from the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. for construction, and a $2.5 million contribution from Deaconess Hospital over the course of 15 years for naming rights, as well as other privately raised dollars.

“For me, things changed dramatically with the success of Lilly King,” says Tharp. “I think that really opened a lot of eyes to what was possible as far as the talent in Evansville and what this city can deliver to its constituency, given the opportunity.”

The TIF money allotted to the project through Jacobsville’s designation as a Promise Zone, a federal initiative to work strategically with local governments to boost economic activity and improve quality of life, was a driving force behind the Aquatic Center’s location. The Promise Zone program also offered a continuous stream of money to maintain the Deaconess Aquatic Center.

Ground broke on the Deaconess Aquatic Center in December 2019. Less than two years later, the city’s newest indoor pools were complete, marking a new chapter in Evansville swimming history. A dedication ceremony was held Oct. 1, 2021, with the project’s many supporters, financers, and future users in attendance. The Aquatic Center officially opened to the public on Oct. 4.

“The Deaconess Aquatic Center will unquestionably change and improve the quality of our life in this region for decades,” says Winnecke. “Like all the positive progress we’ve enjoyed in the last decade, it’s because of amazing collaboration from the government side to the corporate and private areas.”

The new facility brings Evansville schools on par with other education institutions across the state when it comes to competitive swimming.

Eleven high schools in Indiana have 50-meter Olympic size pools on campus: Ben Davis, Brownsburg, Carmel, Castle, Fishers, Franklin, Hamilton Southeastern, Lake Central, Munster, North Central, and Pike. Many other schools across the state compete in off-campus community aquatic centers, now including EVSC schools.

“There are DI powerhouse colleges that don’t have a facility like this,” King says. “I’m really excited for the future of swimming in Evansville, not just in competitive swimming, but in lessons and recreational swimming and being able to introduce aquatics to a much broader audience.”

Open Lanes and New Opportunities
As the Deaconess Aquatics Center was under construction, the Mayor’s Aquatic Center Task Force had a new set of circumstances to address. Once the pools were filled and doors opened, who would oversee the facility?

From hiring staff to managing memberships, the YMCA of Southwestern Indiana is no stranger to running large community facilities in Evansville.
Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Brown was a member of the task force and immediately brought into conversations about overseeing operations. Ultimately, the YMCA was selected to manage both the aquatic center and its programs.

“I’m very honored that the city would choose the Y to manage the facility,” says Brown, a former aquatic director at the YMCA in Vincennes, Indiana, and former Purdue University swimmer. “The mayor really wanted Deaconess Aquatic Center to be a true community center, and the Y always looks for people to collaborate with.”

As a result, the YMCA offers financial assistance programs in partnership with the city for memberships and programming like swim lessons.

YMCA aquatics director Heather Polley and member and guest services specialist Jacki Murray manage the daily duties and staff including lifeguards, housekeeping, memberships, guest services, hiring, and training. Polley’s team at the Aquatic Center is made up of lifeguards and swim instructors who are trained through certified programs that have existed at the Y for years.

“The Y already has an established and reputable aquatics program, so by training the staff who work (at the Aquatic Center) and running programs similar to what we would run at the Y, we know that no matter where people go in the community for swim lessons or lifeguarding classes, they’re going to get quality lessons,” says Polley.

One of Polley’s and Brown’s main duties is scheduling. They must strategically reserve the pool’s competition pool and recreational space between the many community groups and teams that use them. There is an increased demand for the facility, which is a good problem to have after use of Lloyd Pool slowed before its closure.

The Aquatic Center offers private and group swim lessons, water fitness classes, and a masters swim team for adults 18 years and older. Coached by Maria Heathcott, the masters swim team began training in November 2021 and already has 40 members.

Brown says the Aquatic Center also plans to offer a diving program and outreach lessons with EVSC schools, starting with Delaware Elementary school this spring.

“The interesting thing about this facility is that we are doing all levels of swim, whether it be competition, lessons, or water fitness,” she adds.

Every EVSC swim team and the University of Evansville’s Division I swim and dive teams practice and will hold future meets at the facility.

Regional groups have been flocking to the Aquatic Center. The Special Olympics swim team trains at the facility every Wednesday night, and Henderson County Schools’ swim team has reached out about hosting a meet there.

One of the Aquatic Center’s most frequent patrons is the Greater Evansville Aquatic Team. As the city’s only year-round USA swim team since 2003, GREAT is run by head coach Jake Downs and club president Ginny King, herself another member of the mayor’s task force and mother of swimmer Lilly King.
Since the closure of Lloyd Pool in 2020, GREAT had swam wherever it could find water, including Hartke Pool and the Downtown YMCA. When the Aquatic Center was built, King and Downs knew they wanted it to be the team’s home base.

“Lilly has never had a meet in her hometown,” says King. “She’s never been able to race a competition or a championship meet in Evansville, which for the size of Evansville is really kind of astonishing that there wasn’t a facility that could accommodate that. I’m just so thankful that kids who are coming up will have that ability to race in Evansville.”

“We certainly feel a little bit spoiled now,” adds Downs. “I think any chance we can get to provide more and better opportunities for our kids, we should certainly be doing that. It’s already paying dividends; the kids really enjoy it.”

GREAT holds morning and evening practices at the Aquatic Center, and the team has already hosted two meets at the facility, including a meet for the Southern Indiana Swim Conference in February. Roughly 400 swimmers from surrounding counties came to Evansville to swim at the Aquatic Center.
Besides financial benefits generated by visiting competitors, the Aquatic Center’s opportunities for meets are part of the exposure that has allowed teams like GREAT to expand their programs as a whole.

“This is by far the biggest team we’ve had,” says Downs. “I think we’re over 125 athletes right now. Over a hundred are under the age of 15, which is great in terms of growing the programs.”

But one of the greatest pluses for the community is that all area children will have the opportunity to learn and enjoy swimming and advance their skills. This goal is underscored by the Aquatic Center’s proximity to the Dream Center, a youth nonprofit in Jacobsville.

“I’m a public school teacher, so I see the need to invest in children. For me, the facility is so unbelievable that it really overrides the fact that my daughter’s face is on the wall,” King says. “I’m very proud of her, but I want to see other kids get to that level. I want that to be an experience that other people here have.”

Growing Local Tourism
Evansville’s largest tourism market is amateur sports. Officials say the financial impacts brought from hosting NCAA and youth tournaments in the Aquatic Center — goals unattainable in the days of Lloyd Pool — will boost the city and region economically for years to come.

“We’re already starting to see it have kind of a huge financial impact for us because the meet’s a big revenue driver for swim clubs,” says Downs. “We hosted our conference meet in February, (and) we’ve got a big regional meet coming in the summer, which we think will have a huge impact not only for our club, but for the city as well.”

The Deaconess Aquatic Center already has garnered attention from the national swimming community. Before the facility even had held its first meet, officials had announced the pool would host the NCAA Division II men’s and women’s swimming and diving national championships in 2026. The competition alone invites more than 300 collegiate athletes from approximately 70 schools.

“I think these types of facilities become anchors in those neighborhoods, which is tremendous,” says Visit Evansville President and CEO Alexis Berggren. “You’re going to be driving traffic and visitors into those retailers and into those restaurants. That’s what helps drive some of these tax revenues to take the burden off our own constituents.”

Berggren says June’s USA Swimming Central Zone multicultural meet, which is hosted by GREAT, is expected to generate more than 300 hotel room nights from athletes and their families coming to Evansville. She says typical swimming and diving events each can net between $200,000 and $250,000 in economic impact based on attendance and the number of room nights generated.

Factoring into the economic boost is the Vanderburgh County Innkeeper’s Tax. A county tax on room rentals and accommodations for periods of less than 30 days, it has stood at 8 percent — the third-highest rate in the state — since it was raised from 6 percent in 2007. Prior to COVID-19 pandemic, the county collected $5,088,898 in revenue from the innkeeper’s tax in 2019, demonstrating the scope of economic growth Evansville can anticipate from revenue generated by the Aquatic Center.

“We wanted a state-of-the-art competition pool for swimming and diving; a facility that would attract new events to our region,” says Winnecke. “We’ve done that.”


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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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