On Jan. 27, 2012, the Post Bulletin's editorial board published an “Our View” opinion about a proposed aquatic center in Kasson. Voters soon would decide whether the city should collect $3 million in additional property taxes to replace the existing pool with one that would include water slides and all of the other bells and whistles that people have come to expect at a pool.
We wrote: “The Kasson City Council is making the right move by opting not to renovate an aging facility that, even if brought into full compliance with state swimming pool codes, would still be dated and dull. The days when people would flock to a rectangular 'cement pond' are gone. … If this proposal is defeated, Kasson will either continue to pour money into a concrete hole (at the rate of $50,000 per year), or it will eventually have to close the pool entirely.”
Sound familiar, Rochester residents?
The Silver Lake Park pool is 62 years old. Discussions of it being outdated, in disrepair and a possible target for closure began in 1992, and in the past decade its existence has hung by a thread almost every year. If the pool were a cat, its nine lives would be running out.
The pool appeared officially and finally doomed in 2020, but the community rallied against its permanent closure, prompting the city council and park board to reverse course and kick in $95,000 for operations, repairs and maintenance for the 2021 swimming season.
But now it's deja vu all over again, as Rochester's proposed $472 million spending plan for 2022 does not include any funds to reopen the Silver Lake pool. The estimated cost of reopening, operating and maintaining it next year would again be $95,000.
At this point, we support the current budget's exclusion of the Silver Lake pool – but not because we want the pool closed. Rather, we want the city council and park board to stop putting Band-Aids and duct tape on a problem that requires a long-term solution.
That solution won't happen until the city answers some important questions. Among them are: Can a city of 120,000 get by with one large public swimming pool, or does it need two or even more? Should one pool cater specifically to adult lap-swimmers, while another targets families and teens? Should daily fees and/or seasonal memberships be high enough for pools to break even, or should the city subsidize pools to keep fees low, or even eliminate fees altogether, as happened in the just-concluded season? Could the city afford to build and maintain new, family friendly water attractions within its current funding formula, or would it need to ask voters for additional tax revenue?
We don't know the answers to these questions – the city might need to create a citizens committee to research some of them – but we do know that the status quo is unacceptable.
Minnesota just endured its warmest August on record, and there's nothing to indicate that our summers are going to cool off anytime soon. Not everyone has air conditioning, and while Rochester's public beaches are free, they also become bacteria factories when the water gets warm. A modern, attractive pool staffed with qualified lifeguards is the safest place for both adults and children to cool off.
Rochester's public pools don't meet that description. In fact, neither the Silver Lake Park pool nor the Soldiers Field Park pool can hold a candle to the aquatic park Kasson residents eventually approved nine years ago. Similarly, Stewartville's public water park, built with a combination of public funding and private donations in 2008, still seems shiny and modern compared to Rochester's public pools. And, it's a safe bet that no one in the St. Charles area drives to Rochester for a swim when they can visit the Mel Brownell Aquatic Center, built in 1999 at a cost of $1.5 million.
Rochester must stop kicking the can down the road. We need a plan, not the current vague one that is already five years old. The new plan must include specific locations, pool amenities and cost projections, and it probably should include multiple options for the public to consider in any possible referendum.
This process could take some time, even a year or two, and we're not opposed to keeping the Silver Lake pool open as the plan develops. It still meets a need, and $95,000 for the 2022 swimming season is fairly small potatoes in a $472 million budget.
But if that $95,000 simply allows city leaders to delay the necessary decisions and actions for another year, then it won't be money well-spent.