Putting Charleston in the swim

(David Quick/File)

People who live west of the Ashley have some good ideas about how to re-invigorate their weary area: better schools, less traffic and more shopping options.

They like the idea of landscaping key corridors, including Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, and encouraging mixed-use infill developments, the most ambitious one at the site of the struggling Citadel Mall.

But City Council member Kathleen Wilson believes - actually, she has no doubt - that a natatorium there would do as much as or more than any of those good plans. And she intends to push the idea until it gets done.

Mayor Joe Riley is on board with the idea, calling it "a very important goal" and confirming that the city has chosen a specific footprint for the natatorium on the Citadel Mall site. And while he doesn't think it can be accomplished before he leaves office in a year, he says that the project it is well worth pursuing now.

West Ashley residents who want more city attention and dollars for area improvements might not have a large swimming facility on their wish list. But as plans are developed for West Ashley, they should be receptive to the benefits of such a keystone redevelopment project.

Certainly, there are thousands of families with swim team members who could explain the benefits and the needs.

Numerous members of the College of Charleston family - current and alumni - were disappointed when the school's swimming and diving team was eliminated this year. It could be resurrected if a natatorium were available for practices and competition.

Ms. Wilson points out that residents across the city would have access to a centrally located, first-class pool facility for therapy and recreation, swim meets and lessons (vital in a place like Charleston that is on the harbor, near the coast and marbled by rivers and creeks).

Families would benefit from being active together, regardless of their income, address, athletic ability, gender or age.

Both the mayor and Ms. Wilson predict the local economy would see dividends as swimmers from elsewhere come to Charleston for meets. Families would stay in local hotels, eat at local restaurants, shop at local stores and then do it all again for the next meet.

And these tourist dollars, Ms. Wilson points out, don't involve more congestion on the peninsula - something the city is trying to address by updating its tourism management plan.

Ms. Wilson, herself an accomplished and passionate swimmer, predicts ripple effects. Other retail, office and residential uses will gravitate to the area to be close to such an amenity. "It is a draw that extends far beyond a grocery store or another clothing/home retailer," she said.

"If Citadel Mall is to be the new downtown, build something unique, special and a draw to bring residents in and allow the market to develop," she said.

Of course the city doesn't own the Citadel Mall site, and its conceptual plans to transform it into housing, offices, green space, deck parking and a natatorium are a long way from fruition.

"It's a big, ambitious undertaking," Mayor Riley said. "But important initiatives take time, and this will be a great asset for Charleston."

He has resolved, as has Ms. Wilson, to move forward to provide a natatorium for the area.

Let's hope it goes swimmingly.