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Our View: City investment can restore lost luster of park 'jewel'

It's now possible to imagine going to the park for great meal, taking a stroll on a boardwalk through restored wetlands, and then attending a play or musical performance at a lakeside amphitheater.

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Our View
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If it seems as if Rochester has been talking forever about a a major overhaul of Silver Lake Park – well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Officially, it's been just seven years. For those who frequent the park, however, that seven years might have felt like an eternity.

But an end to the talking and planning is now in sight. On Monday, Rochester Parks and Recreation presented its latest Silver Lake Park Master Plan to the city council. While the plan is still subject to change, the council is expected to act on it in October, which should set the wheels in motion for actual construction to begin.

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It won't be easy, because right now we all crave “normal.” We want to see people smile. We want to gather around the dinner table with family members. We want our children to hug their grandparents.

The plan's goals are justifiably lofty and complex. Silver Lake Park's central location, water access, diverse ecosystem and rich history should make it a top destination, one of the crown jewels of the city's parks system.

Currently, the park is no jewel.

Silver Lake Pool, built in the 1950s, is hopelessly outdated and increasingly costly to maintain. Public access to launch boats, canoes and kayaks in the lake/Zumbro River is woefully inadequate, and the fishing pier routinely is under water. The ever-present geese foul both the lake and the surrounding green space, trails and playgrounds.

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Public surveys have found that most of the park's users live nearby and visit the park with their children. Those surveys also found that while people want the revamped park to include a “destination feature,” it's the geese and perceived sub-par cleanliness of the park that keeps them from visiting it more often – or at all.

The council and park board now face the challenge of meeting a wide range of goals for the park. Public surveys found support for wetlands, restored prairie and a “natural” way to experience the lake, but those surveys also found support for a watersports play area and a lakeside, amphitheater-like “performance” space. Some want a food truck plaza, while others want a more permanent cafe – or both.

And of course, some people want the park to have a new, modern aquatic center, while others want a less-expensive splash pad – and for the pool to close.

Toss in a dog park, a new fishing pier, a sledding area and perhaps some pickleball courts for participants in the nation's fastest-growing sport, and Rochester could have something very, very special that will attract locals and visitors year-round.

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A drake mallard walks through the mud in Silver Lake Friday, April 23, 2021, in Rochester. The city of Rochester has drawn down the water levels of Silver Lake through Monday, April 26, to accommodate utility work on the North Broadway Avenue reconstruction project. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

All told, the current plan's price tag would be between $14 million and $17.5 million – but that price wouldn't include a new pool.

For now, that's OK with us. Rochester's public pool problems won't be solved anytime soon, and we see no reason why the construction of a free, public splashpad at Silver Lake Park would nix the possibility of a new Silver Lake Pool somewhere down the road. Big changes are likely in the works for Soldiers Field Park, and it would be imprudent to invest tens of millions of dollars into a new pool at Silver Lake before we know what will happen at the city's other major downtown park.

So, setting the pool issue aside, we applaud the efforts of the park board in creating this plan, and we thank those who, when asked, took the time to share their visions for what Silver Lake Park could and will become. It's now possible to imagine going to the park for great meal, taking a stroll on a boardwalk through restored wetlands, and then attending a play or musical performance at a lakeside amphitheater.

And, if someone can figure out how to keep the geese away – well, then Rochester would really have something special.

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