Minneapolis park commissioners approved a $5.42 million plan to renovate the Phillips community pool in hopes of boosting instructions and reducing drownings for low-income residents who lack swimming options.
The board voted Wednesday night to pursue the most expensive option for the pool, saying they expect that the additional money will be borrowed. Park officials did not identify a way to pay for the future debt payments. They also said that they expect that the pool will lose money and that they don’t have a plan to pay for maintenance deficits.
“I’m assuming heaven will provide,” Commissioner Annie Young said.
The burden of figuring out how to pay for the pool and its operating costs now falls to Superintendent Jayne Miller.
Park officials want to renovate an existing six-lane pool, build a new four-lane teaching pool, and renovate locker rooms and spectator space.
So far, the project’s backers have raised $2.75 million. That’s enough for the cheapest pool renovation option, which only overhauls the existing pool and ancillary facilities. Park staff members recommended this option. But that proposal foundered because it doesn’t meet the requirement of adding an additional multipurpose family pool that legislators required when they set aside $1.75 million in state money for the project in 2012.
The board plunged ahead with the most expensive renovation despite years of missed fundraising deadlines by Minneapolis Swims, the booster group behind the pool. The group worked with swimming organizations to devise the pool cost estimate that was incorporated in the state legislation. That process bypassed the Park Board, which is now stuck with that amount, even though it estimates the cost of two pools at a minimum of $4.27 million.
Higher drowning rate
Commissioners said they want to improve water safety for low-income youth in the predominantly minority Phillips community. Children of color statistically have a much higher drowning rate in Minnesota, according to federal statistics.
Park staff members were directed to spend up to $120,000 to develop design plans for the most expensive option by mid-July.
The most expensive option does have the smallest projected annual operating deficit — $135,881 — due to increased rental use, according to a park staff estimate. Minneapolis schools and Augsburg College have pledged to pay a combined $200,000 annually to use the pool. But that’s a five-year commitment, and the sixth-year operating deficit would be $336,000.
Borrowing an estimated $2.6 million to build the most expensive option would bring estimated annual debt payments of about $154,000. That means that the net deficit could reach an estimated $290,000, or $490,000 after five years.
Park staff members face a tight deadline and must have the project under contract in 13 months to qualify for state money.
‘Tougher to figure out’
Commissioner Steffanie Musich cast the only vote against the more expensive option.
“I don’t think not building the pool is a good choice,” Commissioner Scott Vreeland said.
Miller said in an interview that park facilities in general and aquatic facilities specifically don’t pay for their operating costs, requiring subsidies. But serving a low-income population with limited ability to pay makes the financial challenge greater, she said,
“This is a tougher one to figure out than most,” she said about the board’s decision.
The money for borrowing could come from scaling back or cutting other neighborhood park projects, Miller said.
Finding money to operate the pool will mean cuts elsewhere in park operations, Miller said, but she hasn’t identified where.
The pool and a gym in the building were built as a 1973 addition to Phillips Junior High School, now closed, and were slated for demolition until the Park Board bought the facility in 1987. A $1.5 million renovation made it the most expensive recreation facility in the park system. The pool was the only indoor pool the park system operated, and residents fought a 2008 proposal to fill it in after it went out of service.