Emotions ran high Monday night before Leesburg commissioners agreed to set aside $2.86 million for a new pool in the city.
After a long debate over several pool options and where to locate it, commissioners agreed to explore putting the aquatic complex in the area of the Susan Street Recreation Complex. But when pressed on exactly when the pool might be built, both Mayor Dan Robuck III and City Manager Al Minner stressed that a long process lies ahead.
“We’re about a hundred steps from putting a stake in the ground,” Minner said.
The option commissioners chose to explore for the new complex will feature a 25-by-25-yard pool, diving boards, a single slide, beach entry with play features, eight swimming lanes, a new bathhouse, shade structures and night lighting in the pool.
Some residents who spoke before the commission were upset because the Venetian Gardens pool will close July 16 to make room for a new community center, leaving the city with only one pool at the Dabney Recreation Complex. That pool, which is near the site of the proposed new facility, also will close sometime in the future.
Lifelong Leesburg resident Randy Hepburn became quite animated and upset when telling commissioners that some residents are afraid to go to the Dabney pool because of its location.
“I know what all this stuff is about. Quit fooling yourselves,” he told the commissioners and the audience, adding that he wasn’t allowed to swim in the Venetian Gardens pool as a child because he was black. “It’s about our community and our neighborhood.”
Commissioner Bob Bone confirmed that some residents have told him they won’t go to certain locations to use the new pool. He called that kind of thinking “foolish” and stressed that “Leesburg is bigger than this.”
Mayor Pro Tem John Christian agreed, adding that economically speaking, it makes sense to put the new pool in the Susan Street/Dabney area where infrastructure exists and land is available for added parking.
“To say someone is not going to go to the swimming pool, I say if they don’t want to go, too bad,” he said. “We are building a complex for all Leesburg residents. So my vote is always do what’s best for taxpayers, not what’s best for who wants to do it because it’s in my neighborhood.”
Hepburn also suggested that once the Venetian Gardens Pool closes, Leesburg police officers could be stationed in the Carver Heights area to alleviate fears.
“I’ve been looking at Facebook and this and that, and people saying how dangerous it is,” he said. “Let the police department to more routine patrols, and that way, I believe everybody should be satisfied.”
After the meeting, the 62-year-old Hepburn opened up about being kept out of the Venetian Gardens pool as a child.
“I could throw a rock into the pool from where I lived (on Pine Street), but they wouldn’t allow me in there because of the color my skin,” he said.
Hepburn and another lifelong Leesburg resident, Betty Stevens Coney, stressed to commissioners that regardless of where the pool is located, it should be named for the late Hubert O. Dabney, a longtime coach and teacher who was extremely active in the community and was instrumental in getting the city to build a swimming pool in the Carver Heights community in 1954 – a facility he oversaw and used to teach swimming lessons to black children and adults from throughout the local area.
“H.O. Dabney taught me how to swim,” Hepburn said. “We’d have to get on an orange grove bus. He used to go through the neighborhood and pick all the black kids up to take them to the Carver pool.”
Coney added that it’s important for the community to remember those who have made a difference in the past like Dabney.
“Wherever the pool is placed, it should wear the name H.O. Dabney Pool,” she told commissioners. “As so many have spoken and as we have lived through the legacy of H.O, Dabney, certainly it bears to name that pool.”
Leesburg resident Agnes Berry agreed, adding that Dabney changed many lives through his dedication of teaching swimming, as well as water safety, self-respect and decent living.
“This is part of what Leesburg’s history is all about,” she said.