A long-sought pool for Chesapeake could emerge from the state budget negotiations

‘It shows to the rest of us this is an important place.’

March 31, 2022 12:02 am

Chesapeake officials want to build their first public pool, with a big boost from the state, on land next to the Cuffee Community center-library. (Roger Chesley / The Virginia Mercury)

One city’s decades-old water “drought” may finally be over. Its mayor just announced local officials will finally build a public pool.

Forgive the residents of Chesapeake, though, if they don’t rush out to buy bikinis, swimming trunks and inner tubes. Since the city’s founding more than a half-century ago, promises about swimming pools have been made and broken. The commonwealth’s second-largest city, population just a tad under 250,000, has had its share of belly flops.

Yet hope springs eternal: Mayor Rick West, at last week’s annual State of the City address, credited local legislators for seeking $9 million in budget amendments to help fund an indoor pool – one of the city’s capital priorities. Chesapeake would have to pay for the rest, with the total at perhaps $15 million, the mayor told me. 

It would be built on land next to an existing library-recreation center in a low-income area: The Clarence Cuffee Community Center had previously been mentioned as a possible site for a pool. The time from groundbreaking to opening could take a few years.

“It is an opportunity for kids in that area to have something,” said Del. Cliff Hayes, a Chesapeake Democrat and former City Council member. “It’s a shame it’s taken so long.” As a child growing up in Chesapeake, he had to hop on his bike and head to a Norfolk center to learn how to swim. 

Chesapeake residents have sought a public pool since at least 1973. Their pleas have usually led to excuses, instead of splashes.

West was a little reticent this week to discuss the project, since the funding is tied up in the state’s budget negotiations. Lawmakers will be back in Richmond starting April 4 for a special session. 

The mayor was less hesitant to extol the proposed pool’s benefits. It would teach residents in an underserved area how to swim. The pool also would entice people to visit that community more frequently. 

“That changes the expectations,” West said. “It shows to the rest of us this is an important place.”

Placing the pool in the Campostella neighborhood also is evidence to African Americans that the city will provide better opportunities and equity for all. Such issues gained renewed attention after the slaying of George Floyd in 2020.

West credited the New Chesapeake Men for Progress and Chesapeake Coalition of Black Pastors for keeping the issue in the forefront. 

“He’s been open to hearing and listening and being a part of the city leadership addressing issues,” said Bishop Kim W. Brown, who heads The Mount, one of the more activist churches in Chesapeake. Brown said top city officials have been meeting quarterly with the Black pastors group, of which he is a member, over the past couple of years.

“We don’t have a city pool that can accommodate the practices for high school swimmers,” added Clifton Randolph, president of the New Chesapeake Men for Progress. “It would make Chesapeake a better place to live and work. So it would make it better for all the citizens.”

I’ve been accused of killing many trees by advocating in The Virginian-Pilot, my former employer, for Chesapeake to build a public pool. I plead guilty.

In late 2015, I wrote a two-part series on the issue. I noted that among the nation’s 100 most populous cities, Chesapeake was one of only two without a public pool. (The other was Fremont, Calif.) 

Learning how to swim prevents drowning, is a lifelong type of exercise, and provides training for jobs on the water. Not to mention that swimming is easy on the joints. 

Public pools are a great place to get that experience. Sure, you can apply for a membership at your local YMCA or private club, but many families can’t afford it. Municipal pools have much lower rates, and they welcome everybody. 

Residents in Chesapeake have been disappointed before, especially since the start of this century. 

Early proposals for the Cuffee Center, which opened 15 years ago, had a pool. It was never built. The City Council in 2011 rejected a major, costly overhaul in a local park that would’ve included an Olympic-size pool. It probably would’ve drawn youth swimmers to tournaments from nearby states. 

A more-recent proposal at Cuffee, about a half-dozen years ago, fizzled before getting much traction.

Will there be complaints that the state is funding a local project? Possibly. 

However, major appropriations of state money often have gone to localities. Several are amenities that improve the quality of life and lift up people. Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, told me Wednesday of a few:

The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk. The Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach. Gun violence prevention in Portsmouth. Razing decaying buildings in communities.

“We’ve given lots of money to lots of local museums and special projects” in certain jurisdictions, Knight said. “It’s not unprecedented to do.”

The timing of this year’s request by Chesapeake is serendipitous, since the state has an infusion of cash. Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration projects the excess revenue across three budget years is $14 billion.  

“I said God is working things out the right way,” Mayor West noted. 

Is the pool essential? Debatable. Will it be an asset to Chesapeake? Definitely. 

It’s decades past due for the city. It will bolster the community. That’s a role the state should want to support.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]