May 17, 2022

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Palm Coast’s Belle Terre Park and Frieda Zamba Pool Need ‘Total Rebuild,’ But Council Is Wary of Another Expansion

“I’m afraid of asking how many millions that we’re going to have to spend on this,” Palm Coast City Council member Eddie Branquinho said at a workshop Tuesday, after hearing a pretty grim report about the city’s Belle Terre Park and swimming pool, long known as Frieda Zamba.

He should also be afraid of the canyon cracks trenching through the three tennis courts at the park, cracks wide and deep enough to be a clear and present danger to players ankles, and more.

The city’s parks and recreations manager and a design consultant are recommending what amounts to a near-clean sweep of the nearly 40-year-old city facility–demolishing and rebuilding its buildings, replacing the curvy, 25-yard swimming pool with an Olympic-quality equivalent, and demolishing and rebuilding tennis and racquet courts.

It sounded like a carbon copy of discussions at the Flagler County School Board since 2019 about the nearby by unrelated Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, which also has decrepit tennis courts, an ageing pool, a poorly configured parking lot and a bit of an identity crisis. The school district has been hoping to get more support from the city, or a sense that the two agencies could work together on their facilities, whether by combining some services–particularly aquatic services–or even pooling resources: the two facilities, a few mere blocks from each other as the crow flies, are duplicating services and, to the school district at least, the racquet club is creating an unsustainable burden.

But neither Palm Coast administrative staff nor city council members–including John Fanelli, a school district administrator who’s sat through innumerable presentations about Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, and who now sits on the council–brought up the district’s issues and interests, or any collaborative possibilities whatever between the two sports facilities.

The silence may have been an unintended if considerable oversight. “City and County are working hand in hand on a countywide approach to amenities,” Mayor David Alfin said today in a text, suggesting that those conversations may be yet to come. “Heidi and Denise are a great Lego match building the quality of life for all residents of Flagler. They have my total support.” Heidi Petito is the county administrator, Denise Bevan the city manager.

An actual dollar figure for the rehabilitation of Belle Terre Park never figured in the presentation to the council, though it likely would not have been as much as the money spent on the expansion of the city’s Tennis Center, a facility younger by half and used more sparingly and exclusively, only by members, as opposed to the more freely accessible Belle Terre Park. There, only pool entry requires a fee, and a very modest one ($4 for adults, $3 for seniors and youth).

Belle Terre Park and the aquatic center are old and in places decrepit, but not unsafe, city officials, including the fire chief, reassured the council. The facility can limp along for a few years, which appears to be just what the council will let it do, once safety issues are addressed. The council may be leery of another uprising over an expensive parks upgrade when, moments earlier in the same meeting, it had heard the catastrophic transformation of the $5.1 million splash pad at Holland Park into a boondoggle just weeks after it opened less than a year ago. (See: “Splash Pad Boondoggle at Holland Park: Council Considers Suing Builders and Scrapping $5.1 Million Amenity.”)

“Let’s make it safe and usable for the short term,” Alfin said of Belle Terre Park, then “identify how big and how bold we can go with the aquatic center that well suits the residents of the city of Palm Coast.” But both cost and funding sources have to be found, Alfin said. He specified: revenue sources would have to be other than property tax revenue. He also specified that the big revamp won;t be happening any time soon.

Frieda Zamba pool this evening. (© FlaglerLive)
Frieda Zamba pool is lapping at its twilight years. (© FlaglerLive)

“As we are growing I don’t think there’s a doubt in any single council member’s mind that a full-blown, full-fledged aquatic facility will be in our future at some distant date. And I’m thinking that we should consider the presentation we heard today and what needs to be done at a minimal cost to be a transitional bridge to that future aquatic center.” In 2018, the council was close to approving spending $100,000 to imagine what an aquatic center and recreation master plan would look like. (See that contract here.) But it killed the idea the following week, when it became obvious that no such recreation center could be paid for, let alone sustained. The city has been imagining one since 2011, with little progress.

That leaves making do with what’s there now.

Belle Terre Park, which includes the municipal swimming pool known as Frieda Zamba Pool, was built in 1985 as a county park, and transferred to the city in 2001. Racquetball, handball and tennis courts were built sometime before 2007, when Buddy Taylor Middle School expanded with the addition of the shared cafeteria and classroom building between Buddy Taylor and Wadsworth Elementary. That which eliminated access to the park from Belle Terre Parkway, and eliminated what had been shared parking between the school and the park.

Today parking at the pool is insufficient, Hirst said, while school buses go through the park in the morning and the afternoon. That’s not an issue with the pool in the morning, when it’s not open, but it is open during the afternoon bus run. “So we do see a little bit of limited access for users that come into through the back,” Hirst said. “So if you came in and you wanted a lunchtime swim, you’re stuck for probably a good half an hour before you can get up, just due to the bus traffic coming through. Depending on pedestrian traffic, the buses can pretty much back up and have a traffic jam all the way through to our parking lot.”

The Wadsworth Elementary car rider line creates its own challenges, looping through the Belle Terre Park parking lot and creating “a lot of congestion” morning and afternoon, interfering with the city pool’s programs like aqua zumba water aerobics and swimming lessons. “Some people just don’t even bother coming in and using our programs due to the to the extent of the congestion and the traffic,” Hirst said.

The pool was used by just over 20,000 people in 2020-21. It is used by high school swimming teams. The tennis courts, also used for pickle ball, and racquet balls are open to the public at no cost, the ball fields had 22 field reservations in 2021-22. The city also has an administration building there but it’s too unsuited for the administrative needs of the facility: the city wants to remove it and build a better one in its place. The locker room is structurally deficient, with deteriorating plumbing, no showers accessible to the handicapped, a lot of rusting beam support, so any repairs would likely not be worth the cost. “So our recommendation is again, that building needs to be replaced,” said Sam Elsheikh, who heads the Orlando office of OLC Designs. “There is no redeeming value in that building.”

The pool is also 38 years old. Pools usually last between 40 and 50 years. It’s cracking. It needs resurfacing. The pool deck is a patchwork of several additions and expansions, and has a few safety hazards, while the pool itself is not deep enough for competitive swimming. “So even if you upgrade the pool, you’re going to end up with a design that doesn’t really serve the community,” Elsheikh said. The pool could be a “learn-too-swim pool,” but not much more–not even a kids-friendly venue, he said. The playground is in better shape, except when it rains and floods, and it’s a trek to the bathrooms. The tennis and racket courts are so severely deteriorated that the city is recommending demolition and reconstruction.

“Is it dangerous to operate that facility today?” Alfin asked. It isn’t, Hirst told him, so users are not in harm’s way.

“It’s not dangerous to operate, just not ideal,” is how Council member Nick Klufas sees it. “The layout is very outdated and the proximity of, let’s just say the restrooms, to the playground, to the pool, with no shower facilities: It’s just not a modern design. It certainly doesn’t fit the expectations of the high level of community and amenities that Palm Coast has, that we represent.” He is supportive of having a facility that can support the city’s swimming teams, and of council members’ field trips to the facility to see it first hand.

Meanwhile, the administration will gather more solid numbers about usage of the facility’s tennis courts and racquet courts, and its swimming pool–and more solid estimates of repair or construction costs ahead. But don’t let your imagination swim laps in an Olympic pool just yet.