A divided Anoka County Board has decided to shut down Bunker Beach Water Park this summer, a popular destination in Coon Rapids that attracts an average of 118,000 visitors annually.
The urgency of the 4-3 vote during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled board meeting was prompted by concerns from commissioners who didn’t want to go too deeply into the seasonal hiring and training of 150 staffers.
The majority said it was in the best interest of the public health to close. But dissenting commissioners said it was still too early to consider shutting down the water park now.
The unknown duration of the pandemic leaves unclear whether Anoka County will move forward with its planned $6.75 million reconstruction and expansion of the water park while it’s shut down. Work was slated to kick off in September after the pool closed for the season, but now there’s the option of starting construction earlier.
County Board Chairman Scott Schulte said closing the park was the best decision in terms of financing and public health because the virus has not slowed down, and the county is a creature of the state forced to live by Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home orders.
“In the end, I hope we’re all wrong,” Schulte said. “I hope we made the wrong decision, the virus goes away and we’re back healthy a month from now and everybody’s back on the streets.”
Social distancing would be impossible at the water park, said Commissioner Mike Gamache, who voted to shut it down. The park draws between 1,300 and 1,600 visitors daily on average.
“Even though we may see the stay-at-home order lifted at some point in time, it’s likely that large groups will still have restrictions on them,” Gamache said.
Schulte said a big concern for him was opening the pool but not having high enough attendance numbers to support operations. “Will they come?” he asked, adding that even if restrictions were lifted people might remain hesitant about large gatherings there.
But Commissioner Robyn West, who voted against the closure, said the virus is “slowing down” and that people could decide on their own whether to go to the park.
“When people are in a swimming pool that’s treated ... it’s a constant cleansing,” she said. “This is a low-risk situation ... I think it’s going to be way different in two months.”
Commissioner Matt Look also opposed closing the water park, along with Commissioner Julie Braastad.
“Unless we plan on shutting everything down indefinitely, I don’t see the purpose,” Look said. He said the decision to close was “panic-driven” and “fear-based,” and the water park will still run a deficit because of debt services.
The water park typically breaks even, with revenue offsetting operations and utilities as well as the $450,000 paid annually on the debt. With the park closed, it likely will go in the red.
Look also said he opposed moving ahead with the reconstruction and expansion project since the future of the water park and when it will reopen was uncertain.
The project’s future will be discussed at next week’s Finance Committee meeting and later go to the board for a vote. Commissioners agreed that maintenance work to keep pools operational was important, but other work depends on available funding. The water park is more than 30 years old, and officials said its aging infrastructure and mechanical equipment need to be addressed to keep it functioning safely.