Hall in Flames

Strife at swimming's prime shrine threatens to wash away a local icon

In the decades he has spent in Fort Lauderdale, Nelson has built a reputation as a shrewd, class act. He has been named the city's man of the year. He's in five other halls of fame. And his knives are out. He has distributed enough copies of the letters criticizing Freas that he refers to the collected correspondence simply as "the packet."

"No one 15 years ago, or maybe even 20 years ago or 39 years ago, thought that it would ever come to a war between the city and the Hall of Fame," Nelson says. "But when you've got idiots representing the Hall of Fame, you're gonna have some problems with the city."

Freas claims the letters and media coverage have been distorted and that he just wants to teach kids to swim.

Embattled Hall of Fame President Sam Freas
Colby Katz
Embattled Hall of Fame President Sam Freas
Fort Lauderdale's pools have hosted ten world records, the most recent by Michael Phelps in 2002.
Colby Katz
Fort Lauderdale's pools have hosted ten world records, the most recent by Michael Phelps in 2002.

"All the he said/she said," Fort Lauderdale mayor Jim Naugle sighs. "I try to stay out of it. Because it could consume you, trying to figure out who did what. Maybe we need some kind of marathon swim, and have them duke it out."

With the failure of the plans in Pompano Beach and Hollywood, Swerdlow and Freas began courting Daytona Beach. There, they have proposed three 25-story condo towers and a beachside aquatics complex. "What we have, if designed properly, is more Disney-style; I think we could have a great impact," Freas says.

But, like its predecessors in South Florida, that project has become snarled in controversy. It would require changes to the city's land-use plan and, according to a recent Orlando Sentineleditorial opposing the deal, "allow full-time residents on a strip of beach long designated for tourism... it just doesn't add up."

The plan has also drawn fire from the Daytona Beach News-Journaland local merchants like Paul Politis, who owns a "tourist trap" beach shop and a Burger King in Daytona. "This is a crappy deal from the get-go, and I'm glad they screwed up enough times that we could gather support," Politis says. He offers four-to-one odds that the deal never happens. "If they ask the city for [taxpayer funds] in any way, I don't think it's a go. As many times as Sam Freas has gotten up publicly to state his case, he's stepped all over himself. A lot of double speak, no concrete answers. Nothing the community can get behind."

Even George Mirabal, the president of Daytona's chamber of commerce, who originally courted the Hall of Fame months ago, comments: "This thing, it's such a mess."

Freas is gung-ho on the potential Daytona deal. But he also sounds eager to keep a foot in Fort Lauderdale. "Let's talk about what we need to do to stay here," Freas says. "Will you allow us to meet our mission? Will you allow us to have a presence here forever and ever and ever?"

Whether the Swimming Hall stays or goes, Fort Lauderdale's bottom line is likely to be unaffected. The city ran 40 events at the pools last year. Marvin says those competitions poured $11.2 million into the economy. "People come here because they like the town," Marvin says. "If you're a traveling team, airport's right there, airfares are cheap, hotels are on the beach, restaurants are on the beach, pool's across the street from the beach. I think the Hall of Fame's a great thing. But, no, I don't think it [leaving] would have any kind of effect on our operations.

"Things move all the time. The Cleveland Browns moved. The Giants and the Dodgers left New York. People move."

With or without the Hall of Fame, the city seems intent on replacing the pools. It has approved $27 million from beach taxes to overhaul the venue on the current site. Those plans do not presently provide for museum space. Which means the city might soon have merely a very good swimming venue, without the name brand.

As Nelson leaves his office one evening, he takes the back stairs, which overlook the small pool where instructors and parents introduce babies to water. About a half-dozen little kids are splashing around, laughing and chirping.

"Just imagine for 54 years, thousands of little baby dolls coming out here to learn to swim -- to save their lives," Nelson says. "It's fabulous."

He totters down the stairs, across the pool deck and over to Tim O'Brien, who is overseeing his own parade of tots whirly-gigging off the three-meter board. Then Nelson walks to the pool's back gate, unfastens the padlock, and heads to his car. But he adds a final note.

"I have no reason -- well, I have reason, but I have no desire -- to see Sam go down the drain," he says. "I just want to see him leave the Hall of Fame, so we can keep the majesty for the people who are involved, and they don't have to be ashamed."

He boards his Lexus SUV and drives across the causeway, to the million-dollar, 80-year-old, two-story home he bought 26 years ago for a buck-sixty, right across the Intracoastal from the Hall of Fame. From his front yard, if you squint, you can read the scoreboard. He's that close to it.

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