Our View: Towns invest in pools as Rochester treads water
In 1999, St. Charles opened the Mel Brownell Aquatic Center. Built at a cost of $1.5 million (a bargain in today's dollars), it has a 181-foot waterslide, a drop slide, zero-depth entry and plenty of other kid-friendly features.
Stewartville did much the same thing in 2008. Voters authorized the sale of nearly $2 million in bonds for the basic structures of a new pool, and local donors kicked in the remaining $415,000 to provide all the bells and whistles, including two waterslides and all of the "toys" that today's kid-friendly pool needs. If you go there on a hot Saturday afternoon, arrive early if you want a lounge chair. It's a busy place.
Then this summer, Kasson welcomed swimmers to its glitzy, high-tech aquatic center — pricetag $3.1 million — that features multiple waterslides, diving boards and fountains. It replaced a pool that was 71 years old, and in a hot summer, the facility might actually turn a profit. This project was authorized when voters agreed to a property tax increase that amounted to $120 per year for owners of a $150,000 home.
So, we don't think we're going out on a limb when we suggest that Byron will be the next community near Rochester to build a modern aquatic center. (Unless Pine Island is quicker to take the plunge with its own $2.5 million plan for a new water park. Stay tuned.) Rochester's neighbor to the west has topped 5,000 residents and is growing by leaps and bounds, so it's hard to fathom that Byron will drag its feet for long now that its 26-year-old pool has gone belly-up.
Granted, the city's pool committee has presented a fairly ambitious wish list for the proposed water park, and it's entirely possible the $5 million vision might be scaled back before the plan goes before voters. Perhaps the city will follow Stewartville's funding system, seeking private donations for the bells and whistles that are desired but not absolutely necessary.
The bottom line is that clean, safe, attractive swimming pools are important to a community's quality of life. Adults need a place to exercise, and families need a low-cost place for kids to escape the heat, take swimming lessons and play with their friends. Not everyone can afford a trip to Wisconsin Dells or membership in a health club.
Which, of course, raises a familiar question: When will Rochester step up regarding its own shortage of modern, attractive swimming facilities?
Think about it. Within three years, it's entirely possible that Minnesota's third-largest city will be surrounded by small towns that boast public pools that are superior to its own — especially in terms of capacity in proportion to population. When the plug is finally pulled on the Silver Lake Pool, the Soldiers Memorial Field Pool will be an even more crowded destination.
It's been a cool summer, but remember last year? When temperatures soared, the city opened the public pools for free swimming, and people were waiting in line after Soldiers Field hit its capacity of 700 swimmers. Imagine those crowds when the city's population is 150,000 and the Silver Lake pool is gone.
Byron is in a tough spot that no one could have predicted. A 26-year-old pool shouldn't fail suddenly, but that's what happened — and we expect the city and its residents to rise up and meet this challenge.
Rochester is in a better situation. Both of its public pools are still functional, which means the city has the luxury of taking its time as it develops a pool plan.
But at some point, Rochester must stop being satisfied with merely treading water.