Cottage Grove voters to decide on pool, park upgrades

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • October 19, 2012 - 4:44 PM

Voters in Cottage Grove will weigh a decision on two referendum questions in the Nov. 6 election asking them to commit up to $13.5 million in bonding for a new aquatic center and bring sweeping improvements to its largest park.

Cottage Grove's aging municipal pool closed last year, and the city was approached by the Cottage Grove Athletic Association -- a volunteer organization that runs baseball and softball programs, among others -- about increasing demands being put on fields and improvements at Hamlet Park.

Plans for a community center in Cottage Grove have been kicked around "well before I got here," said Ryan Schroeder, who has been city administrator for 15 years. Recently, the city discussed a partnership with the YMCA for such a center, but the impending arrival of an LA Fitness Center changed those plans.

Similarly, the city has been talking about upgrading and expanding Hamlet Park, the city's largest park, for a decade, when land was removed from Oakwood Park to make way for Hardwood Drive. Proceeds from a city land sale were put into a trust fund for park improvements, Schroeder said. Those funds paid for the addition of 30 acres at Hamlet Park and other projects. But now there is not enough money in the fund for more work.

Unlike the new $15 million Public Safety/City Hall Building, paid for with city reserves and no property tax increase, voters weren't asked to decide the issue in a referendum. That's because the amenities being sought from the bond proceeds aren't "mission-critical," Schroeder said. And it's why the city is advocating neither for nor against the questions.

"We're not in the business of marketing. We're just asking the question," Schroeder said. The decision is squarely in the hands of voters.

The referendum includes two questions. Voters will decide whether to pass either one, both or neither. If both measures pass, it would cost the owner of a typical home valued at $230,000 about $6 per month -- $74 a year -- in additional property taxes, the city estimates.

Here is how the two proposals and costs break down:

Question 1

This question would authorize issuing bonds totaling $6.5 million to acquire and build an outdoor family aquatic center.

Likely features would include: a "zero-entry" pool -- one that slopes from shallow to deeper areas gradually, like a natural beach; a shallow zone aimed at younger children that includes spray features and slides; a deep zone aimed at older children and teens that includes swim lanes, climbing ropes and multiple slides, like a water park; a large deck area with seating and shaded areas; picnic areas and a playground; an operations building with a reception desk, locker rooms, concessions and other necessities; and a parking area.

For an average home in Cottage Grove valued at $230,000, the aquatic center question would add $36 a year to the property tax bill ($12 for a $100,000 home and $58 for a $350,000 home), according to city estimates.

Question 2

This question would authorize $7 million in bonds for both an indoor/outdoor youth play center, plus extensive expansion and upgrades to Hamlet Park.

The play center would involve renovating the city's former Thompson-Grove pool site and building for year-round indoor recreation.

Plans would likely include: an indoor playground for children under 10 years old, an outdoor playground, a climbing wall, rentable party rooms, a serving kitchen, a lobby area with wireless Internet access, an open turf area and an outdoor stage and amphitheater.

The Hamlet Park improvements would include: four new lighted baseball/softball diamonds, a concession building, new trails and sidewalks and improvements to the park's existing ballfields, playground and landscaping.

For an average home in Cottage Grove valued at $230,000, the second referendum question would cost another $38 a year ($13 for a $100,000 home and $62 for a $350,000 home).

In the case of both questions, those numbers are only for construction costs. Fees would be charged to users to cover operating expenses. Schroeder said user fees for the pool would cover all but an estimated $75,000 of annual expenses, and the play center would be self-supporting.

In an independent community survey this past summer, Cottage Grove residents showed significant support for both questions, and that was one reason the City Council felt it was a good time to put the questions to voters, Schroeder said.

"We thought there was a high likelihood that it would not be supported," Schroeder said, especially with so much uncertainty about the economy. "We were surprised."

An aquatic center was strongly or moderately supported by 56 percent of the respondents, and 42 percent strongly or moderately opposed it. Improvements to Hamlet Park drew nearly an identical response.

When asked if they would support a tax increase to put those plans in place, 27 percent said they would oppose any tax increase to improve parks and recreation facilities, 61 percent they would support it under some conditions, and 10 percent said they backed any tax increase for the improvements.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the higher the specific tax cost, the lower support became; 32 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay $4 to $6 more per month.

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039

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