Nearly 100 people gathered Tuesday to celebrate the groundbreaking for the Phillips Community Aquatics Center in south Minneapolis after years of fundraising and sometimes contentious debate.

The $7 million construction project is expected to be completed by the end of this year and open for use by early 2018. The Minneapolis Park Board said it is the first step in reducing drowning deaths in communities of color.

"It's about water safety," said Park Board Member Scott Vreeland, whose district includes the Phillips neighborhood. "It's about teaching kids and adults how to swim."

According to federal statistics, children of color are at the highest risk of drowning.

The center, located at 2323 11th Av. S., will be the Park Board's only indoor public pool in Minneapolis. The project will include refurbishing a six-lane pool for competitive swimming, plus the addition of a fitness center, four-lane teaching pool and family locker rooms. The aquatics center will also offer gender-specific swimming lessons.

Refurbishing and reopening the pool has been a point of debate for years as the Park Board, Minneapolis Public Schools, neighbors and swimming groups tried to work out financing.

Money for the project is coming from a variety of sources, including state bonds and Minneapolis Public Schools, which each contributed $1.75 million. And as late as last week, Minneapolis Swims secured $270,000 through the Minneapolis Foundation — given by an anonymous donor — to cover the cost of the fitness center, yoga room and renovation of the existing locker rooms.

"This became a personal mission for me, after one of my sons saved a young boy from drowning at Lake Harriet, and being puzzled by the fact that the boy couldn't swim or even dog-paddle," said Denny Bennett, board president for Minneapolis Swims, the group that lobbied to open the pool.

The community center will remain open during construction but the west entrance of the building will be closed from June until September.

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203