After decades without a community swimming pool, the City of Pine Bluff hosted the grand-opening of the Pine Bluff Aquatics Center on Saturday. Community members, including Versie Biley, came to support the state-of-the-art facility in her hometown.

“It’s very important, because the children don’t know how to swim and the parents don’t know how to swim,” Biley said of the center’s creation.

Biley also brought her grandsons Antwone Miller, Jr. and Bradlee Miller, whom she said couldn’t wait to attend the event.

“They asked me, ‘Granny, are we going over there?’” Biley said, smiling. “We’ll make it a family affair. My main concern is them.”

The center, located at 400 East 11th Avenue, is another addition to the city’s downtown revitalization efforts and was funded by the 2011 “Penny for Progress” tax, plus donations.

According to Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, the 36,000 square-foot facility cost about $12 million to build.

“This has been a vision for this community for many years,” Washington said. “Today is the fruit of that dream coming to reality.”

During the grand-opening, she discussed the collaborative efforts of previous mayors Carl A. Redus Jr. and Debe Hollingsworth, along with multiple City Council members who pushed for the construction of the facility. Washington also noted that for about 40 years, Pine Bluff did not have a community pool after the closing of Townsend Park Pool.

“To see this gives these kids hope -- hope that their community is coming back, that their community loves them and that their community embraces them with wonderful opportunities that enrich their lives with things that they’ve never had offered to them before,” Washington said.

The second phase of the project, which Washington says will be added onto the east end of the building, will be a large multi-purpose facility with gyms, weight-lifting areas, a walking trail and other amenities.

Guest speakers Paralympic swimming hopeful Haven Faith Shepherd and Olympic silver medalist Maritza McClendon offered words of wisdom as they shared their journey to swimming.

Shepherd, who was born in Vietnam, told the audience that she lost her legs when her parents committed murder/suicide. Years later, she found her love for swimming, thus changing her life.

McClendon, the first black woman to make a U.S. Olympic swim team, medaled in 2004 in Athens, Greece, for the 400-meter freestyle. McClendon urged parents to not only get their children swimming lessons, but also how to learn to swim themselves.

“When you think about communities and drowning statistics and the importance of learning how to swim, 64 percent of African American kids don’t know how to swim,” McClendon said. “Your chances of drowning are reduced by 88 percent if you learn how to swim. So, when you hear those things, you immediately have to make a difference.”

Groups of families wrapped around the center for a chance to take a dip into the pools on Saturday. The facility offered free swimming as a part of the grand-opening festivities. The center includes a 25-yard eight-lane competition swimming pool, children’s pool, therapy pool, wading pool and whirlpool that will allow for exercise and water sports.

“It’s really watching a dream come true for me, watching it come true for swimmers on my team today and the swimmers that will hopefully win the Olympics in the future,” said Troy DeBill, coach of the Pine Bluff Sharks youth swimming team.

On July 13, the center will host its first swim meet with at least 13 teams from across Arkansas converging on the new aquatics center to take part in 92 events.

“We have wanted to host a meet for many, many years and we just didn’t have a place to do it,” DeBill said. “I feel really proud that we can bring everyone from our swim league to Pine Bluff to show what we have and participate in the league to its fullest.”

In addition to attracting more swimmers to her team, DeBill says one of her goals includes helping every child learn how to swim.

“It’s an opportunity for every child in Pine Bluff, regardless of race or socioeconomic status or religion, to all come together and everyone participate in something that everyone deserves to be a part of,” she said. “I’m going to work really hard to remove all financial barriers so that any child that wants to learn how to swim and wants to be a part of the team can join.”

A one-day rate at the aquatics center will cost $5 per person, while a one-month membership will cost $30 per person or $50 for a family. A three-month membership will cost $85 per person or $135 for a family. A six-month membership will cost $160 per person or $270 for a family, and those interested in a one-year membership can pay $300 per individual or $480 for a family.

“A smart man once told me there’s more water on the earth than there is land, so you’re going to run into some at one point or another,” DeBill said. “Everybody should at least know how to survive in the water.”

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