Rosenblum: Let's hope Park Board doesn't sink Phillips pool

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 2, 2012 - 7:49 PM

A surprisingly sweet outcome of the contentious 2012 legislative session was the story of the little swimming pool that could.

Tucked into Gov. Mark Dayton's $566 million bonding bill was $1.75 million for reconstruction of the long-closed Phillips neighborhood indoor pool. The money begins to address a stunning inequity in our fair city.

More than 15,000 children in one of the poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods of Minneapolis do not have what many of us take for granted -- a community pool.

The project isn't just a fun-magnet. It will likely be a life-saver, offering swimming lessons and education about water. But after a summer of dreaming and drawing up plans, the pool's future suddenly is in peril.

To get those precious bonding dollars, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board was required to secure a $350,000 matching grant from the Hennepin County Youth Sports Commission. At a Sept. 19 meeting of the Park Board's Planning Committee, members voted 2-2 to approve the grant's submission. (One member was absent). A majority was needed to carry the vote.

That means more than $2 million in capital funds could sink unless the full Park Board, meeting Wednesday night, amends the committee's vote and approves the grant application.

Please do.

Three African-American children drowned in Minneapolis lakes over the past two summers. American Indian and Hispanic children also drown at alarmingly high rates.

Aside from public safety, this community pool will soar in many ways. Swimmers are tops in graduation rates and GPAs. A community pool cuts down on crime by giving kids a healthy gathering place. It creates jobs and collaborations.

As I mentioned in a May column, Augsburg College plans to use the pool for its women's swim team and physical education classes. South High School's swim team is considering using it, too.

"We have two reasons to pass this," said Park Board member Bob Fine, who cast one of the two yes votes at the committee meeting. "First, to not irritate the Legislature," which, Fine noted, might hesitate to take a bold funding chance like this in the future.

"And, two, that area of the city can really use a pool, which is the most important thing. And we're not building it from scratch."

Park Board member Scott Vreeland cast the other yes vote. Anita Tabb and Liz Wielinski voted no.

In March 2010, the Park Board-owned Phillips Community Center swimming pool was one week away from being filled with concrete. Enter Minneapolis Swims (www.mplsswims.org), a nonprofit organization providing swimming lessons and outdoor recreation for inner-city kids.

Minneapolis Swims' founder Hannah Lieder rallied the community to save the pool, negotiating with the Park Board to lease it and begin the Herculean task of fundraising for capital improvements and a $4 million operating endowment. Part of her admirable and eyebrow-raising strategy was schlepping neighborhood children, the homeless, refugees and immigrants to the Capitol to lobby to save the pool. It worked.

Among bipartisan champions were Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, and Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, who authored the bonding bill.

Wielinski's no vote certainly doesn't mean she sees no value in the concept. An avid, lifelong swimmer, she was supportive of the project at first. Her "red flag," she said, was learning that, if Minneapolis Swims takes the grant money, the Park Board will be required to pay operating costs for 20 years, estimated at $200,000 to $250,000 a year. Programming dollars are estimated to add another $300,000 to $400,00.

"It's a challenge in these budgetary times," Wielinski said. "We don't want to say no, but this costs a lot of money. Nobody wants to raise property taxes."

Clark, who said the pool was "sold and won as a civil rights issue," was surprised by the planning committee vote. She guesses that a calculating error, in which operating and programming costs were thrown together, left the committee believing they'd be on the hook for more than $650,000 a year, instead of about one-third of that.

"I choose to believe they just made a mistake that can be corrected by learning the right amount," Clark said. She also respects the board's need for a financial plan going forward, "which is in process, as far as I know. Our public agencies are stretched," she said, "but those putting this together have been very responsible. We have fabulous multipartisan allies. It will surely pay its way."

Lieder, too, appreciates the financial challenges. She vows to find the money and keep fighting for kids.

"I still don't understand how we can be investing all this public money into the new [Vikings] stadium, Target Center, Target Field, etc.," Lieder said, "but we can't figure out how to pay for one little swimming pool."

For details on Wednesday's meeting, visit the Park Board's website, minneapolis parksmn.iqm2.com/citizens.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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