Miami-Dade County

South Miami moving ahead with swimming pool in historically black neighborhood

Six-year-old Aaron Gerard has never been to a pool. But he may get his chance if South Miami commissioners deliver on a Tuesday vote to move ahead with long-delayed plans for a city pool at Murray Park.

Commissioners voted 4-1 on Tuesday to move ahead with the pool, which has been controversial for decades.

“The commission voted to build the pool after 39 years of talking about it,” said Mayor Philip K. Stoddard. “This is a historic decision.”

But there’s still a risk the pool won’t happen. The city has about $1.2 million in grants for the construction, but City Manager Hector Mirabile warned that the deadline to use the money is Dec. 31. If the city doesn’t meet the terms of the grant, the money would have to be returned — a move officials fear would threaten future grant applications.

Aaron’s mom, Marisa Gerard, and other residents around Murray Park, in the city’s historically black neighborhood, say the pool is much-needed.

“I can swim like this,” Aaron said, rotating both arms after listening to a recent discussion of the pool at City Hall. Gerard said, “No, no, no, it’s not that easy. You can drown if you don’t know.” She can’t afford the lessons.

According to the National Institutes of Health about 1,500 children drown each year in the United States. The rates were higher in African Americans than whites. Researchers have cited the lack of availability of swimming lessons as one of the reasons for the racial disparity. The residents in the area around Murray Park, 5800 SW 66th St., have been predominantly African-American since segregation in the 1920s.

Since the idea for the project was born in the 1970s, the city has lost thousands for failure to meet prior deadlines for the project. Officials have rejected several designs. Now the county requires that there be substantial completion of the pool by the end of this year.

In addition, Miami-Dade County approved that $50,000 from the Community Redevelopment Agency funds be allocated to the design phase, and $50,000 be used for the construction phase.

Before the vote, Vice Mayor Josh Liebman, who had referred to the pool as a “bad business” decision, tried to compromise. He said he wanted a pool that would be open for a limited number of weeks a year and to focus construction efforts on reducing maintenance cost — projected at $50,000 for the first summer.

“If you want me to support the pool then you are going to have to commit to not exceeding a budget of $50,000, and bottom line, not increasing taxes,” said Liebman.

Commissioners Robert Welsh and Walter Harris agreed. Mirabile said the $50,000 could be allocated in the next fiscal year budget. Welsh said he plans to meet next week with Miami-Dade County officials “to beg for more time.”

They have already spent about $200,000 in a design that will not be used. The city is moving to hire a design build contractor, and plan to attempt — for a third time — to make a deal with a private pool-management company.

Commissioner Valerie Newman was the only one who voted against it. She believes the project is a financial risk, and is concerned that the operational and maintenance costs may lead to raising taxes.

“If the goal is to teach children how to swim, there are other ways to do it,” Newman said.

During the public forum, a group of Newman supporters spoke against the pool. They believe the city cannot afford the “luxury.”

“If somebody wanted to give me a gift, say of a yacht or of a Jaguar, and they said here are the conditions of the gift, and they said you have to keep it and you have to maintain it,” said resident Antoinette Fischer. “If I can’t afford to maintain that gift, then I have no right, I have no business to accept that gift.”

Others said the solution was for the city to provide transportation to other pools. Sharon McCain, who worked on Newman’s campaign, said the developers of affordable housing projects in the area should cover the maintenance cost.

Stoddard said the city is in good financial health. It’s three months into the budget year, and the city has $2.63 million more than projected in the bank.

There was also a heated debate during and after the meeting about whether or not there was an underlying racial issue associated with the delays. Harris, Liebman and Newman said they didn’t think there was.

About two dozen residents disagreed, and didn’t celebrate the vote.

Deltravis Williams, 34, who persistently reminds commissioners about his childhood best friend who drowned in 1993 due to lack of access to swimming lessons, said, “I will believe it when I see it.” He said he credits his career with the Navy to YMCA swimming classes.

“I have been watching this for years. The kids really need it. I think there will be delay tactics again to not build a pool at all,” said Levy Kelly, 65, who was born and raised in South Miami.

As a South Miami Middle School teacher, Richard Ward advocated for African American children during desegregation in the 1960s. He is now a retired assistant principal and serves as the chairman of the board for the City of South Miami Parks and Recreation. He has children like Aaron in mind.

“The pool is something that the city ought to have. We have been putting it off for a long time,” said Ward. “Show your profiles in courage, and do what’s right for the children of this community.”