Washington County plans to spend $1.8 million to make improvements to one of the metro area's most popular beaches, including refurbishing restrooms and picnic areas and creating additional parking spots.
The county is also looking for ways to manage the traffic flow in and out of the Lake Elmo Park Reserve swimming pond.
"The focus is on the customer experience, starting with the parking and improving the bathrooms and improving the picnic areas — the whole customer experience," said county Public Works Director Don Theisen.
Theisen said the county's top priority will be ensuring adequate parking for the thousands of people who visit the park on nice summer days — 60 percent of whom, he estimates, are county residents. At times, the area has been so overcrowded that people were forced to park on nearby grass fields and walk half a mile to the pond, according to park officials.
"On a busy day out there, we can have as many as 5,000 on any given day. We'll have a couple thousand vehicles … and it's probably higher than that," Theisen said. "We had bathroom facilities that were just inadequate for the number of people that were out there."
County officials conducted a survey this summer to determine which of the beach's amenities need fixing.
"We did a report that identified a whole list of recommendations," he said. "Our first focus is going to be on parking and traffic flow. And our second focus is going to be on public restrooms."
The man-made pond was built in 1986 to accommodate 600 to 800 visitors per day. Today it is besieged by more than 2,000 daily visitors during the season.
It is one of only three manufactured beaches in the metro, the others being at Lake Minnetonka Regional Park and the Three Rivers Park District in Plymouth.
"The swim pond generates the largest amount of revenue for the Parks Division. If improvements are not made, customer satisfaction will likely be reduced, which would have a corresponding reduction in the amount of revenue collected due to swim pond use," the county said in its 2013 capital improvement plan.
The two-year project, slated to begin in 2014, will be paid for with state and county funds.
John Elholm, the county's parks director, said officials will continue evaluating possible improvements to pedestrian and vehicular access to the swimming pond.
"What we have right now is somewhat conceptual," Elholm said. "We need to determine yet what's the first thing we need to do."