Swimming Hall could move to California

The International Swimming Hall of Fame, a treasure trove of aquatic history, might say farewell to its beachside home and move its medals and memorabilia to California if an agreement on its future cannot be worked out with the city of Fort Lauderdale.

ISHOF, which has had its headquarters and museum in Fort Lauderdale since 1965, is leaning toward relocation as the clock ticks down to the 2015 expiration of its lease with the city.

ISHOF’s leaders are dissatisfied with the planned redesign of the aging Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex and its pools, which they say would not only relegate the Hall of Fame to an unappealing building but fail to attract more visitors to the site.

The city of Santa Clara, Calif., home of a powerhouse swim club and the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium, has been recruiting ISHOF with financial incentives and the support of a swimming-enthused populace.

“It has been a disappointment to see that the city of Fort Lauderdale does not think we have value,” ISHOF president and CEO Bruce Wigo said. “We love Fort Lauderdale and would like to stay, but I have a fiduciary duty to put it where it can thrive and fulfill its mission, and that requires a business model that works.”

Fort Lauderdale is investing $32 million to reconstruct two Olympic-size pools and place the diving well atop a four-story parking garage. ISHOF would occupy a rent-free 10,000-square-foot building on the property at 501 Seabreeze Blvd., which is located between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway in the heart of Fort Lauderdale’s beach district.

The design is impractical and out of tune with current aquatic complexes, Wigo said. He advocated adding a water park component to draw traffic other than swimmers, whose numbers have dwindled as more pools have been built in Broward County. The complex loses about $1.2 million a year.

“When this was built in 1965 it was the only 50-meter facility around, but now there are 18 in Broward,” Wigo said. “The pool is hardly used and closes at 2 p.m. on weekends. Plus the population has shifted west. You have to give people a reason to drive here. Yet they are going to stick with a 50-year-old concept.”

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said a water park wouldn’t fit on the narrow, man-made peninsula, nor would it be compatible with the parking situation. The city is committed to refurbishing what was once a jewel of the area, he said.

“I would like to see a world-class facility paired with an internationally acclaimed Hall of Fame, which it was decades ago,” Seiler said. “The facility will get used. The question is, what can they do together to draw more attendance? We bring an upgraded facility, the Hall of Fame should be able to fill it with entertaining exhibits.”

The diving pool, which just hosted the annual FINA AT&T USA Grand Prix with divers from 21 countries, would be placed in what could prove to be an awkward location, according to Ron O’Brien, former Olympic coach and coach of the Fort Lauderdale team from 1990 to 1996.

“Divers have enough trouble with the wind off the ocean as it is,” O’Brien said. “You put the platform seven stories high and they’ll need to take parasails up there.”

The complex was once a tourism hotspot for swimmers and divers who came south to train and compete. Fort Lauderdale’s teams once produced world-class athletes, including four divers on the 1992 Olympic team. The YMCA held its national meets there until the grandstands deteriorated to an unsafe condition.

“In its heyday it was very popular, and everybody wanted to be on the beach and in our warm climate,” O’Brien said. “But the facility has gotten old and kind of decrepit. The emphasis is on the junior program rather than on senior-level athletes.

“I’d love to see the city modernize it, bring in more people and more events and keep the Hall of Fame here where it has so much tradition.”

When Wigo was hired in 2005, after rescuing USA Water Polo from near-bankruptcy, nonprofit ISHOF was on the brink of closing. Mark Spitz and Donna de Varona were among the stars asking for their memorabilia to be removed from the neglected museum.

Wigo rallied donors, made improvements and streamlined the budget, which is about half what it used to be at $600,000 today.

“We’ve regained credibility and stabilized finances,” Wigo said.

Santa Clara has pledged to raise $10 million for ISHOF’s relocation as well as a $2 million endowment. Two memorandums of understanding have been signed — which are not binding documents, Wigo emphasized.

Patrick Yam, founder of the Menlo Park, Calif., venture capital firm Sensei Partners, and Gideon Yu, 49ers president and former Facebook CFO, are co-chairs of the Santa Clara Blue and Gold Ribbon Commission. One of their goals is to bring ISHOF to their city as part of an initiative to upgrade the George Haines International Swim Center, home pool of the Santa Clara Aquamaids synchronized swimming team, Santa Clara Dive Club and Santa Clara Swim Club, where de Varona, Spitz, Don Schollander, Pablo Morales and Mike Bottom trained.

“From Berkeley to Stanford to Santa Clara, we have a passion for aquatics,” said Yam, who was in Fort Lauderdale with de Varona over the weekend for ISHOF’s annual induction ceremonies. “We want to do something positive for the community and for ISHOF. Bruce has listened to how attentive and interested we are and have been for several years.”

Wigo said he has also received inquiries from England and China. Satellite exhibitions drew good crowds in those countries, he said. Several years ago ISHOF was in discussions with Pompano Beach.

“We have been exchanging different contract proposals,” Seiler said. “The ball is in their court. We can’t negotiate through the press.”

The Hall holds a fascinating collection from all aquatic sports, including exhibits on Johnny Weismuller, Buster Crabbe, Greg Louganis, plus Spitz’s starting blocks, Jenny Thompson’s medals, uniforms, antique swimwear, posters, videos, photos and a library of archival material.

“We are still exploring our options, but it isn’t going well with Fort Lauderdale and hasn’t for years,” Wigo said. “Is it time to move on and make it new again? We want to find a place where it can work.”