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Minneapolis park officials are poised to restart efforts to revive the Phillips Community Center's dormant swimming pool after years of blown fundraising deadlines.
There is still a whiff of chlorine in the center's darkened pool room although the pool itself, a remnant of the mostly razed Phillips Junior High, has not been used for years.
Local residents fought off a 2008 proposal to fill the pool, and now a community-based nonprofit says that an expanded swim center is needed for competitive swimmers and by minority kids at risk of drowning.
"We're here to provide access to people that wouldn't otherwise have it," said Denny Bennett, the new board president for Minneapolis Swims, the group trying to build the pool.
Fundraising, however, remains a struggle.
After three years of trying, Minneapolis Swims still hasn't raised the $2.8 million that the Park Board says is needed for even the cheapest option, which mainly revamps the existing six-lane pool and adds a small pool for teaching lessons.
The Park Board is scheduled to act Aug. 6 on a proposal that would spare Minneapolis Swims the sole cost of operating the proposed aquatic center. Then the two organizations would look together for construction and operating funds.
Some commissioners are leery of taking on a pool that they worry would require taxpayer money the park system can't afford.
"I am very concerned," said parks Superintendent Jayne Miller, who added that in her experience, pools never cover their operating costs and the park system is already facing a looming budget deficit.
Bennett, with Minneapolis Swims, told park commissioners in July that he thinks an eight-lane pool with a bigger teaching area would be more viable. That could cost upward of $5.8 million, though a contractor has estimated a similar version that would save $1 million.
Minneapolis Swims remains well short of even the cheapest option, having raised $2.2 million in state, Hennepin County, Augsburg College and park money. It announced this week a grant of up to $250,000 from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, but it needs to match the grant in order to get the money.
The project is also racing toward another make-or-break deadline. It loses state-backed construction money if it can't break ground by mid-2016.
The proposal before the Park Board sets new deadlines to raise the needed construction money by the end of February and five years of operating expenses, estimated at $600,000 annually.
Advocates for the pool say the new facility would give Minneapolis swim teams, both high school and youth, a competitive boost. Minneapolis high schools are down to two multischool swim teams, which shuttle among two district pools and one YWCA pool for practice.
Supporters also say the pool could ultimately reduce drownings. Fully 78 percent of Phillips' population comprises minorities who statistically face a higher risk of drowning, which supporters say a teaching pool could address.
Phillips lacks the lakes of other areas of Minneapolis, and the closest pool, at the Midtown YWCA, charges for use.
The proposed pool would also charge admission, but backers already have raised $20,000 from the YWCA for scholarships for low-income residents.
Federal records reveal a racial and ethnic disparity in drowning rates, both in Minnesota and nationally. Blacks are the biggest minority group in Phillips, and those ages 5 to 24 had a drowning rate of 1.3 per 100,000 residents from 1999-2010. That's almost three times higher than the rate for whites. Latinos, the second biggest group in the community, had an even worse 1.6 rate per 100,000.
All-age data for 1999-2010 show that Minnesota's rate of 1.1 black drownings per 100,000 people is tied for 11th nationally, only slightly above the national rate of 0.9. In Florida, which leads the nation in drowning rates for blacks, two people die per 100,000. For black youths, Minnesota's drowning rate matches the national average.
Advocates suggest that Minneapolis, which lost 10 residents to drowning in 2012, faces a pool deficit compared with St. Paul. St. Paul has two seasonal and one year-round city pools, one public beach and 12 pools at 10 schools. It closed two school pools recently. Minneapolis has two outdoor Park Board-owned pools and is adding a third in 2015, 12 beaches at six lakes and five school pools, three of which are operational.
Park Commissioner Anita Tabb said reopening the Phillips pool is far less cost-effective than teaching swimming at outdoor pools and beaches.
"It's not about a pool. It's about teaching adults and kids to swim," she said.
"We lose a ton of money on our pools," said another commissioner, Scott Vreeland, who represents Phillips. "All of us wish we could make it work."