NEWS

Rochester council dives headfirst into its shortage of swimming pools

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ROCHESTER – It’s surprisingly difficult to find places to swim here — even in summer.

This city of more than 125,000 residents has just two outdoor pools and one of them was about to be replaced by a splash pad until Monday’s City Council meeting.

“We’re three times the size we were in 1960 and we’re going to go down to one pool,” Council Member Shaun Palmer said.

After almost two hours of discussion, council members last week paused the city’s plans to renovate Silver Lake Park, taking issue with a proposal to replace the aging pool there with a splash pad. A majority of the council wants to either keep the pool or build another, smaller one to offer swim classes.

But the changes the council wants could add up to $4 million to the project and delay some renovations to next year.

Parks officials have sought to replace Silver Lake’s pool for years; the splash pad was first part of a 2016 parks system plan, then included in a master plan for Silver Lake Park renovations in 2022. City staff even have a spot picked for a second, smaller pool, but didn’t include funding as part of the master plan.

“I will not support a project that doesn’t have a pool,” Council Member Molly Dennis said at the council meeting Monday.

Aquatics advocates are concerned shutting down Silver Lake Park’s pool would hamper efforts to hold swim classes this summer.

The new aquatics center at Soldiers Field Memorial Park is set to wrap up construction this spring and open in June. It’ll have a 50-meter pool, lazy river, water slides, a splash pad area and a wading pool, among other features. But swimmers say the new center doesn’t have a proper space to hold classes.

“It’s just not conducive to have another 30-40 kids every half hour in there teaching lessons when there could be up to 1,200 people at capacity in there,” said Rochester Swim Club president Autumn Kappes.

Kappes pointed out that the Silver Lake pool is where kids from the nearby Boys & Girls Club go to learn how to swim each summer. The club has recently organized swimming lessons for elementary students during the year at Willow Creek Middle School, but the program is small and needs more volunteers to expand.

Some council members say the city isn’t keeping up with community needs.

Palmer said he heard from more than 100 residents who want to keep a pool at Silver Lake. He recommended using sales tax funding or borrowing to pay for a second pool, as well as a new bathhouse to replace an aging building at the park. A new pool and bathhouse could cost up to $4 million, while renovating the existing pool would be about $1.2 million.

Other council members weren’t as supportive, arguing public support would likely dry up if the project affected the city tax levy.

Council Member Mark Bransford chided city staff for not including funding in the project earlier, but City Administrator Alison Zelms pointed out that plans have come together across several councils.

“I wish we’d had this discussion a year ago, but now we’re having it,” she said.

City staff are expected to outline funding options later this month, as well as plans to open Silver Lake Park’s pool later this year.

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