International Swimming Hall of Fame looking for a new home

Johnny Weismuller’s swimsuits will be packed up and moved out of Fort Lauderdale. Mark Spitz’s starting blocks, Jenny Thompson’s medals and Greg Louganis’ memorabilia are also seeking a new home.

After 50 years by the beach, the International Swimming Hall of Fame plans to close its headquarters and museum when its lease with the city expires in February 2015. The collection of aquatic artifacts will be relocated, but the future address is undetermined, the facility’s chief announced Monday.

ISHOF’s board of directors was dissatisfied with Fort Lauderdale’s renovation plan for the aging Aquatic Complex on Seabreeze Boulevard and decided by an 11-0 vote to move to a city where a modernized attraction can be constructed, CEO Bruce Wigo said.

“This was a very emotional and difficult decision for our organization,” Wigo said. “However, we have come to realize that the problems we have had with the city since at least 2000 — and which we have been unable to resolve since — stem from the fact that our organization’s vision and the city’s vision for their new Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex are not in alignment.”

Wigo wasn’t confident that the city’s design would generate more foot traffic for ISHOF or provide the type of building necessary for a new museum featuring interactive exhibits.

The complex will undergo a $32 million upgrade to its two 50-meter pools and diving well. One of the pools and the diving well will sit atop a four-story, 500-space garage.

“We needed a more creative concept that would draw more people and appeal to visitors and families,” said Wigo, who had advocated a splash pool or water-park component. “The city is sticking with the outdated 1965 concept of pools where you come do your laps and leave. There are 18 Olympic-sized pools in Broward County. Ours is usually deserted.”

The complex, which loses about $1.2 million per year, used to be a popular winter training spot for college teams and the site of major meets. Fort Lauderdale’s teams produced Olympic swimmers and divers. The diving pool still hosts the annual international FINA Grand Prix competition, but the YMCA stopped holding its national age-group swimming meet there when the grandstand deteriorated. Attendance at the museum dwindled from 100,000 in its heyday to 25,000, and its budget has been cut to $600,000.

“This place has a rich tradition, but we’ve had to detach from the nostalgia and accept that the swimming business model has changed,” said Wigo, who took over ISHOF in 2005 when Spitz and Donna de Varona threatened to remove their memorabilia from the dilapidated museum.

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman said the city could not provide the $50,000 annual subsidy Wigo sought in addition to the $1 annual lease for a 10,000-square-foot building. ISHOF also wanted control over events held there.

“The bottom line is we would gladly provide space and forego millions of dollars in potential rent, but we’re not in a position to provide that subsidy,” Feldman said.

Construction will begin next summer and last for 16-18 months, Feldman said.

“We thought we could work it out, but my only regret is that we delayed the project for several months to wait on a conclusion from ISHOF, whose board originally endorsed our design,” Feldman said.

Wigo said he is in discussions with a few other cities, including Santa Clara, Calif. “I don’t know where we will end up,” he said. “We would like to stay in South Florida, but I’m doubtful we can find any property locally.”