Cotham: Could new pool complex bring Olympics to Charlotte?

Mecklenberg commissioner wants county to think big for the future.

02/14/2014 6:39 PM

02/15/2014 12:00 AM

Lately Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham has teased her Twitter and Facebook followers with photos of her surrounded by U.S. Olympic swimmers training in Charlotte.

With one of her postings, she remarked: “I am thinking about Olympics in Charlotte sometime.” With another, she opined: “Could we ever draw the summer Olympics to Charlotte?”

As it turns out, Cotham’s not the only one asking the question. Last year, when she chaired the commission, she says she was approached by “executives” in Charlotte’s business community interested in building a swimming complex that could seat thousands of spectators and draw swimmers and fans from around the world – the first part of an effort to make Mecklenburg a possible contender for the summer Olympics.

Meetings with those executives have continued and Cotham has tried to learn the world of international swimming by visiting with Olympians such as gold medal winners Ryan Lochte and Nick Thoman. Both are members of SwimMAC’s Team Elite that trains at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center and Queens University of Charlotte.

“We have these Olympians here and this is something that could grow in Mecklenburg County,” Cotham said. “Wouldn’t it be great if something big can happen from this? It would be economic development of a different kind.”

When she first met Lochte, Thoman and other Olympians such as silver medalist Micah Lawrence, Cotham didn’t know who they were. Lochte has won 11 Olympic medals (five gold, three silver and three bronze) and Thoman is an Olympic gold backstroker.

The next time she saw them, she apologized for knowing so little about their world.

Cotham wouldn’t name the executives who approached her, and declined to detail their plans.

“It’s too early,” she said.

She did say the group preferred not to merely renovate the Aquatic Center, which opened 23 years ago and now is too small for larger international swim events that draw thousands of fans and media. The center in uptown’s Second Ward holds only 1,000 spectators. In the Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department’s 10-year plan, officials allotted $8 million to expand and renovate the aquatic center.

But Cotham said the group suggests the county limit improvements to the center and use the rest of the money to help build a new complex “that is the best in the state.”

“There is just no facility here to have an event that is huge,” Cotham said. “These events would be good for hotels and restaurants; this is about putting heads on beds.” They’d also help other draws such as the NASCAR Hall of Fame or the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

Greensboro and Cary have such a facility. Last year, Greensboro made an unsuccessful pitch to host the 2016 Olympic trials that ultimately went to Indianapolis.

Cotham said she wants the county to “think big.”

“Wouldn’t it be great to have the Summer Olympics in Charlotte?” she said. “A lot of people said we’d never get the Democratic National Convention here, and look what happened. This is too good an opportunity for economic development not to think big.”

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