By Dedra Cordle
They were sights and sounds not seen or heard for nearly two years in the natatorium at the Vaughn E. Hairston Southwest Community Center.
There were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and temporary foes all packed onto the aluminum bleachers, phones out and ready to go.
There were young men and women screaming their hearts out, slapping the starting blocks as they encouraged teammates gliding through the water meters away. There were coaches prowling the edge of the pool, clipboards out, stopwatches in hand, looks of approval on their faces
What was happening on this night of Dec. 14 was not a recording, a look back at a moment in time pre-COVID when things were normal at the popular recreation destination in the village of Urbancrest. Instead, this was a live event, a swim meet, a team coming home, and a spark of progress in a place that sorely needed to see and hear it.
“It’s good to be here,” said Robert Boggs, the head coach of the swimming and diving team at Central Crossing High School. “It’s good to be back.”
Since 2005, around the time when Boggs was hired to lead this team, the Comets have been using this facility as its home base of operations.
“It’s our place to practice, to improve, and to have that home-field advantage when other teams visit,” he said.
There is a level of comfort there, he said, which was why it was so jarring when they had to find a new place to go.
In early 2020, when the emergence of COVID-19 shut down recreation facilities across the state and country, all they could do was wait until a time when it was safe to gather again, when the South-Western City Schools District gave the go-ahead to field a team. When that time came, however, they could not use their favorite facility as recreational programming was halted due to financial losses incurred by the YMCA of Central Ohio during the pandemic.
With the natatorium closed, the Comets found a temporary location to practice at the Grove City YMCA on Discovery Drive but saw their numbers shrink dramatically.
“We could only hold our practices at 5:30 a.m.,” said Boggs. “It was really difficult for our team to be there at that time and we saw our numbers drop dramatically.”
Not wanting to field another team of only 15 members this season, Boggs sought out the village of Urbancrest’s mayor to see if they could help bring the aquatics center back into code and back into operation.
“I told him to come out with our inspectors and take notes,” said Joseph Barnes Sr.
With an extensive list of repairs that included sandblasting, caulking, sealing, and painting, Boggs then enlisted the help of the “swimming family” and they got to work.
For over a month, the coaches, the swim team, and their families and friends chipped away at that lengthy list of improvements and slowly brought the swimming pool back to life.
Though the swim season only runs until mid-February – the school entered into a non-exclusive use of facility agreement with the village at its council meeting on Dec. 14 – Boggs said the team has big plans for the future.
“We would love to get in that pool and run programs for this community this summer,” he said.
Until that time comes, however, Boggs said they will take pride in knowing they had a hand (several of them, in fact) in bringing the aquatics center, their home base, into working condition.
“This facility means so much to us and we know how much it means to this community too,” he said.
While the swimming pool is able to be used by members of the Central Crossing swim team during certain hours, that does not mean it is open to the greater public just yet.
According to Barnes, the reason the school can use the aquatics facilities is because they have certification, meaning they are licensed to run programs and have knowledge of safety rules and lifesaving skills.
He said while the village has fielded interest from instructors wanting to run recreation programs at the natatorium, they have not signed any agreements at this time.
“I would love to have this facility opened yesterday,” he said, “but we are just not there yet.”
Barnes said there are minor improvements still needed in the aquatics center – “there is a lot of framework to do,” he added – whereas the rest of the facility needs major improvements.
During a walkthrough of the facility on Dec. 17, he noted the bubbling of the gymnasium floor, lighting fixtures hanging askew, security doors that no longer fit their frames, and upgrades required for the restroom facilities.
“We have to bring our facilities up to meet federal guidelines,” he said. “The transition to manual fixtures, such as touchless sinks and toilets, to automatic is not going to be cheap.”
Barnes said contractors are expected to come out to the facility soon and give estimates on some of the major repair work that is needed. Ideally, the village can secure partial funding for some of these repairs, he added.
“I don’t see why we can’t receive some of this funding that is being passed out to bigger communities than ours,” he said.
When asked about a timeline for the possible complete reopening of the Vaughn E. Hairston Southwest Community Center, Barnes said he could not give an estimate of the possibility because there are so many unknown variables.
“But what I can say is this: When this facility is opened for the community, we want it to stay open for the community,” he said. “We don’t want to run into issues and then have to shut it down again.
“What I want is for every person who visits this facility to be safe, to enjoy themselves, to stress less and get what they need. It may take a little more time before that can happen, but we are getting there.”