Hernando County could get a community swimming pool sooner than expected, perhaps next year.
County leaders have been discussing with St. Petersburg Times officials the possibility of the newspaper's making a "major investment" toward the pool, which would cost about $2-million, parks director Pat Fagan told commissioners during Wednesday's 2002-03 budget workshop.
"We're still in the talking stages," Fagan said. "It looks like it's going to become a reality for Hernando County."
Commissioner Chris Kingsley brought up the pool, an unfunded capital improvement project, because he had participated in the preliminary talks with the Times and wanted to be sure the county was financially prepared to operate the pool if the deal goes through.
Andrew Barnes, Times chairman and chief executive officer, confirmed the discussions and made clear the paper's desire to support the community, especially with its new office under construction on State Road 50 near the Suncoast Parkway.
"There's no question, (the pool) is a part of going along with the new building, of making the kind of gesture which is symbolic affirmation of our commitment to Hernando County," Barnes said. "We are the largest paper there. We mean to be the paper of Hernando County."
Although the paper's intent is clear, Barnes said, the details surrounding its gift are not solid. "It is our hope it will succeed."
Larry Beasley, general manager for the Times' North Suncoast regional editions, said he remains in negotiations with the county.
"It's very premature . . . ," Beasley said, "but, yes, we are considering something of a large magnitude to help out on a project, and this seemed to be the most interesting project we could come up with."
Kingsley, who is spearheading a petition drive to support a pool, called the possible gift "pretty neat," and said, "I'm really, really excited."
Commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson praised Kingsley for his efforts to bring the pool off the county's unfunded capital projects list and closer to fruition. She said the partnership between government and the community bodes well.
"That's the kind of project that I believe will be successful and certainly will be a tremendous benefit to Hernando County," Robinson said.
If the pool project moves forward, it is likely to be in the form of an aquatic center, with areas for competitive and recreational swimming, Fagan said. Several sites are under consideration, he said, with Anderson Snow Park in Spring Hill a leading contender.
The county has considered a public swimming pool repeatedly over the years, but never has had the money for the project.
Fagan noted that the county does not have the resources to either build or operate the pool, a cost estimated at $300,000 to $500,000 a year. Solutions might be partnerships with other organizations such as the School Board, Fagan said, or parking or entrance fees.
Kingsley asked the budget office to include the operations costs and potential revenue sources in next year's budget under unfunded capital improvements, where the pool currently appears.
"When an opportunity comes around like this, we have to be sure when it occurs we're ready to go," he said.
_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.