For The Community, By The Community

By Daniel Christenbury

In East Naples, Fla., options for summertime recreation were limited to indoor activities or suffering in the heat of the sun. While Collier County is a coastal community, not everyone in East Naples has access to the beach or local pools. With the nearest community pool miles away, it was virtually unreachable for those with transportation disadvantages. That is, until the opening of Eagle Lakes Aquatic Facility at Eagle Lakes Community Park.

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Let Their Voices Be Heard
The project was part of the parks and recreation master plan developed in 2011. Following initial planning meetings, Commissioner Donna Fiala, District 1, felt that the community needed to have a voice in the design of the facility. Fiala and staff members invited people in the community and nearby schools to attend a meeting to garner input. The turnout exceeded expectations, and through this discourse a new vision for the aquatic facility was realized.

“I really wanted to see our community have something that was good,” Fiala says. “If you approach the people that you are trying to do something for, that communication will serve as a good barometer for the success of your project.”

“When developing a park or facility for public use, it is imperative to gather feedback from start to finish,” says parks and recreation advisory board member Phillip Brougham. “It will be a long process, but the more time you spend listening to the public’s needs, the more benefits you will reap.”

Along with park staff members and Fiala, the advisory board played a major role in the development of the facility. They also made a positive impact with fair admission pricing by recommending a fee policy that equalized fees across the county, which the county commissioners approved.

“We wanted to ensure that every family could utilize the facility, no matter their income level,” says advisory board member Murdo Smith.

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Amenities And Programming
After a brief delay due to damages caused by Hurricane Irma, the aquatic facility was completed in June 2018. It includes a 25-yard by 25-meter heated pool, a children’s activity pool, a wading pool, a 177-foot open slide, a 122-foot closed slide, a 1-meter springboard and a 3-meter springboard.

The dimensions of the large pool came from input from the Lely High School Swim and Dive team. Prior to the opening of the facility, the Lely aquatic teams had been transported to another part of town to train. Under this arrangement, the teams spent more time traveling to the pool and back than they did at the pool. Now they can host their own swim meets and dive competitions in a new pool, boosting their sense of community and giving them a “home-team advantage.”

During the public meetings, many residents expressed the need for exercise programs at the new facility. Having access to water aerobics was a common request. What better way to get fit than in the pool while staying cool? Other exercise programs available to visitors are aqua spin and floating yoga, both of which are new to the parks system.

A Greater Purpose
Another community partner in this project was the Safe & Healthy Children’s Coalition of Collier County, which dedicates a portion of its mission to facilitating and implementing programs to prevent childhood drowning, among other initiatives. With East Naples being a low-income area, not everyone had the opportunity to learn to swim—an obvious preventative measure against child drowning. This became the group’s focus at the facility, as the Florida Department of Health notes that the state leads the country in drowning deaths of children ages one to four years. Annually in Florida, there are enough children who drown to fill three or four preschool classrooms.

“There are many layers of protection for drowning prevention, and learning to swim is the most important layer,” says the coalition’s Executive Director Paula DiGrigoli. “East Naples was lacking access to a place to learn this essential skill, and having this resource available to the community will save lives and improve the quality of life for families.”

From start to finish, Eagle Lakes Aquatic Facility was a living and breathing project. The initial plans morphed into a facility that met the wants and needs of all parties. This was achieved through a strong collaboration among county leaders, parks and recreation staff members, and a vocal community.

But participation from the community during the planning phase didn’t stop there. Since the facility opened, attendance has been greater than expected.

“Within a week of opening, the place was crowded every day—even when the kids are in school, the adults are there swimming,” Fiala says. “After all the hard work from everyone involved, Eagle Lakes Aquatic Facility really put East Naples on the map.”

Daniel Christenbury is the Public Information Coordinator for Collier County in Florida. Reach him at Daniel.Christenbury@colliercountyfl.gov.