St. Louis Park explores new community center

A task force is studying the idea of a new facility with indoor pool and tracks.

With a city full of residents eager for a new indoor swimming pool and walking and running tracks, St. Louis Park is exploring the possibility of building a community center.

A 17-member task force has begun studying the idea and will make a recommendation to the City Council this fall. Mayor Jeff Jacobs said there is no guarantee that the answer will be "yes."

"The primary question you have to ask before government does anything is: Is there a problem to solve? An opportunity that you can't pass by?" he said. "I'm not sure we're there yet."

St. Louis Park has a Rec Center with two indoor ice rinks and Lenox Community Center, an old school that includes a senior center and a gym. But surveys have indicated that a majority of residents want something more.

In 2006, the city's "visioning" process revealed a desire among residents for community connections, gathering places and more sidewalks, trails and parks. A resident survey done last year showed that more than 70 percent were "very" or "somewhat" interested in adding a new indoor swimming pool, and almost 70 percent viewed a new indoor walking and running track and new fitness area with exercise equipment the same way.

The survey also asked residents if they'd be willing to support a tax increase or user fees to pay for additional recreational or civic amenities. While 34 percent opposed or strongly opposed such costs to residents, 47 percent supported or strongly supported them.

Late last year, City Council members toured community centers in Chaska, Eden Prairie and Plymouth. They were impressed with what they saw, noting how teenagers who were studying mixed with card-playing seniors in one place, and how crowded a water park was on a cold winter day.

Last week, consultant Ellen O'Sullivan ran a work session for the council and task force members, with a strong contingent of Boy Scouts in attendance. Ideas suggested for a community center included an indoor water park, a gym, a walking track, a place to hang out with technology available, an area with coffee and healthy food, a paintball area and proximity to outdoor walking trails. Participants in the session also said the space should be financially accessible, "feel like St. Louis Park," and perhaps have a pet care area.

O'Sullivan cautioned the city to think of the facilities that surround them in other cities, pay attention to market research and realize that some users may want areas where there are no cellphones or computers.

For example, in nearby Edina, the city is reevaluating the features in its Edinborough Park, an indoor city park that has play areas, party rooms, a stage, a track, a fitness area and a pool. Officials are concerned that parts of the facility are outdated. A consultant has suggested that one solution could be to fill in the pool and eliminate the track in favor of more play areas and meeting rooms.

An aging community

Jacobs said any community center in St. Louis Park has to be designed for the future. He said that such a facility could cost $10 million to $15 million.

"I'm not going to answer for the task force, but we have an aging community and lots of baby boomers are getting into their senior years," he said. "But baby boomers won't go to a senior center, because a senior center is for 'old people.'

"This has to meet the needs not just for today's user, but for kids that could be using it 20 years for now. ... This is a building that should last for 40 or 50 years."

Cindy Walsh, the city's parks and recreation director, said task force members will look at resident surveys and talk to people around the city. They'll also look at possible partnerships and locations, and hope to make a recommendation to the city "in or near October."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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