The Splash Arena has a special place in Florencio Palomo’s heart and when he found out it had closed, he wanted to help.
Palomo, who was raised in Gering and graduated from Gering High School, recently returned to the valley from Bronx, New York, to visit the community when he learned the Splash Arena had closed. He worked for the City of Scottsbluff as a recreational specialist where at the age of 26, he learned to swim at the Splash Arena.
He then left the community to move to New York City where he has spent 17 years working in aquatics. He decided to take his knowledge and passion for aquatics to found the REACH Swim Academy in the Bronx, which focuses on helping people with special needs learn how to swim.
Now, he wants to bring that same passion back home to save the place where it all started. When he walked up to the doors of the Splash Arena to find them locked, at first, he figured it was because of Labor Day weekend. Learning that it was permanently closed due to deterioration, he had to do something.
“I cannot sleep at night and feel right knowing I didn’t do as much as I could to make sure it was a place that’s going to be kept alive for generations to come,” he said. “Hopefully, in 25 years of 50 years, we’re not in this place again. I want to create an environment, a business model and a center that is self-sufficient for many decades to come.”
Working with instructors from REACH, they arranged meetings with school and community leaders to understand the current state of the facility while also sharing his vision for the arena.
“We are here to save the Splash,” Palomo said. “Aquatics is a very important part in life and in my opinion, everybody should be exposed to aquatics.”
Palomo and his team have met with the Scottsbluff Public Schools Board of Education, City of Scottsbluff, YMCA, Scottsbluff Schools Foundation Board, Scottsbluff schools facilities and maintenance personnel, Baker and Associates, Splash Foundation and the Seacats swim team coaching staff. All the organizations have supported Palomo’s vision.
The Scottsbluff school board voted to close the arena after a leak was discovered in February 2019 as per Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services regulations. Now, Palomo wants to reopen this community center for generations to come, without taking it out of people’s paychecks through taxes.
“It just doesn’t sit well with me to look at the Splash and possibly think it’s going to be a parking lot,” he said. “Not only is it heartbreaking because I think it’s a beautiful place with great memories, but I think of the lack of opportunities that are going to be there in the future.”
Scottsbluff Public Schools Board of Education president Bob Kinsey said the school board tried to keep the facility open until the significant leak was discovered. As they searched for different entities to maintain a youth program, the district was approached by Palomo.
“Different entities, particularly the school district, asked the YMCA for their help if there was a way to get an aquatics program going in the valley,” he said. “Then, Mr. Palomo came back to Scottsbluff.”
Palomo is looking for a thumbs up from the community as he and his team work with local entities to reopen the Splash. He goal is to enhance the community without it costing the public a thing.
“It wasn’t just a building closing. It was history closing. It was opportunity closing and hope being left to the side,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot, but I want the community to know we’re not looking for community dollars. We aren’t looking for tax dollars.”
The plan is to attach the pool renovations to where the old pool was located as well as expand the space westward. The renovations would also include building an aquatic park.
As the future of the Splash Arena goes to the drawing board, Palomo envisions the future of the arena as a place for students to compete as a high level to hopefully compete at a collegiate level, engage the special needs community and also provide jobs to people in our community.
“At the core of everything, I want to be able to give back to a place that has given me so much,” he said. “It’s more of my love letter to the Splash for giving me so much more.”
The timeline for reopening the Splash Arena depends on the community entities that are involved. Palomo wants the school, cities and citizens to have a say in the process to establish a plan to get the swimmers back into the water. Construction of the pool is estimated to take between 18 months to 2 years, dependent upon the extent of the renovations. The plan would include project phases.
While the community would not see tax money going toward the project, Palomo said they are welcomed to donate to fundraisers from purchasing cupcakes or purchasing bricks. One of the incentives he has in place is when a business or person donates a certain figure, they will receive a brick with their names on it, which will be placed in front of the new arena.
Palomo will return to New York to build a scale model of his vision with his team to present to the community within the next few months. He will also ask his connections for funds to make this vision a reality.