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Our View: Deliver a first-class water park in Rochester

Some tweaks to two holes at Soldiers Field Golf Course seem like a reasonable trade-off.

Our View editorial graphic
Our View
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After years of discussion, commissions, proposals and public meetings, Rochester finally is on the cusp of building an outdoor, publicly-funded aquatic center that should become a top-tier destination for both residents and visitors.

But as the planning-and-approval process nears (we hope) its completion, we can't help but think of two familiar adages – one that the city should heed, and one that it might do well to ignore.

"Measure twice, cut once” is almost always good advice, and it's especially pertinent when a city is on the cusp of investing at least $20 million in a public recreation project with a lifespan that will be measured in decades, if not generations. We need to get this project right, and we need to get it right the first time.

Rochester desperately needs to replace the outdated Soldiers Field swimming pool with a modern, waterpark-style aquatics center that will give Rochester families a nearby equivalent to currently superior facilities in Stewartville, Kasson, Pine Island or St. Charles.

On Tuesday, the Rochester Park Board considered two proposals for the project, both of them created by a group of community members, parks staff and a consultant.

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Preferred concept 2.jpg
A preferred concept design for a new Soldiers Field aquatics park shows how the addition of a shelter and nature play area could affect the nearby golf course.
City of Rochester

The primary features of both plans are identical. Barring any last-minute surprises, the new facility will include a 50-meter lap pool, a lazy river, a tube slide, a body slide, a splash pad and a wading pool, as well as significant upgrades to changing rooms, restrooms and showers.

We heartily endorse every feature and improvement on that list. Families shouldn't have to leave Rochester to find a clean, modern, family-friendly and reasonably-priced destination to cool off and perhaps make some memories on a hot summer afternoon, and both of the plans presented Tuesday should make such outings possible.

The two plans differ, however, in one important way. The community group's “preferred plan” would include a nature play area, shelter and new restrooms just a few steps southwest of the primary swimming pool and within sight of the entire aquatics center.

The “alternative plan” would put these amenities northwest of the aquatics center, on the other side of Gibbs Drive. In essence, this would create two separate destinations – the new aquatics center, and an expanded version of the current “Field of Fun” park, which currently has no restrooms.

The Park Board voted 4-2 in favor of the alternative plan.

This brings us to our next adage: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

We can say with a good degree of confidence that the primary reason the planning group provided an alternative proposal is because its preferred plan would require some small tweaks to the Soldiers Field Golf Course. Tee boxes for the third hole and possibly the first hole would need to be moved, which would shorten both holes by a few yards.

For the past several years, the future of Soldiers Field Golf Course has been the topic of heated debate. The city has considered proposals to eliminate the golf course entirely, or to shorten it from 18 holes to nine in an effort to reduce costs and upgrade facilities at the four city-owned courses.

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But every time a discussion about possible changes to the course came into public view, a well-organized, highly vocal group of golf enthusiasts stepped up to protest. So effective were their protests (and their willingness to pay substantially higher fees) that it now appears likely Soldiers Field will remain an 18-hole layout at least until the 22nd century – or until advancements in golf equipment turn its short layout into a par 3 course.

But really, would it be so terrible to tweak one or two holes?

Several members of the Rochester City Council are on the record opposing any changes to the golf course, so the citizen commission wisely offered two plans – one that they enthusiastically support, the other a backup plan that wouldn't touch the golf course and would thus ensure that the new aquatics center doesn't get bogged down in another year of haggling.

This, however, isn't the time for elected leaders to hold themselves to whatever black-and-white ultimatums they may have previously delivered. The squeaky wheel (in this case, the golf community) shouldn't always get the grease.

If potential users of the aquatics center would benefit from a nearby nature-play area with additional restrooms and a shelter, then that's what should happen – even if one or two golf holes are shortened. And, if the “Field of Fun” playground on the west side of Gibbs Drive also needs restrooms, then the time to run a sewer line over there would be while the new aquatics center is being built.

The cost off meeting both needs (if they exist) wouldn't be prohibitive, and really, no one knows what this project is going to cost. The current $20 million estimate will likely grow before the first kid jumps off of the new diving board. If it takes another half-million dollars to provide what will be useful amenities on the aquatic center's perimeter and/or on the other side of Gibbs Drive, then so be it.

What we can be certain of is that we will never look back and say “Soldiers Field Park has too many restrooms.”

And, if you ever find yourself saying “That new nature area cost me two strokes on the third hole,” then perhaps you should put away your golf clubs and try something new.

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Pickleball, perhaps? We're still waiting for someone to latch on to the idea that the infield of the Soldiers Field track would be a great place for some new courts.

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