Minneapolis park commissioners are jumping into the deep end of the Phillips community pool in hopes of reducing the racial gap in drowning.

The board voted Wednesday night to pursue the most expensive option for the pool at a time when it’s trying to make the case that the park system doesn’t have enough capital money for neighborhood parks.

Commissioners did so knowing that they lack money to pay for that option.  They expect that the money will be borrowed, but there’s no clear source identified to pay for the future debt payments.

They also proceeded knowing that the pool will lose money, something that they haven’t identified how to pay for.

“I’m assuming heaven will provide,” Commissioner Annie Young said.

The heavy lifting of how to make all that work now falls on Superintendent Jayne Miller and her staff.
The board directed them to refine the design for a $5.42 million version of the project at Phillips Community Center. That would renovate an unused existing six-lane pool, build a new four-lane teaching pool, and renovate locker rooms and spectator space.

But the project’s backers have raised only $2.75 million. That’s enough for the cheapest pool renovation option, which only renovates the existing pool and ancillary facilities. Staff recommended this option. But that proposal foundered because it doesn’t meet the requirement of adding an additional multi-purpose family pool that’s part of 2012 bonding legislation that is poised to supply $1.75 million for the project.

Rather than discussing whether to seek more state money or to amend that requirement, the board plunged ahead with the most expensive renovation. That’s despite years of blown 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, which represents a middle option.

Commissioners said they're motivated by a desire to improve water safety for low-income youth in the dominantly minority Phillips community. Children of color statistically have a much higher drowning rate in Minnesota, according to federal numbers.

Park staff were directed to use up to $120,000 to develop design plans for the most expensive option further by mid-July.

The most expensive option does have the smallest estimated annual operating deficit at $135,881, under a park staff estimate. That’s mainly because of an expectation of increased rental use. 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 without it, the sixth year operating deficit for the most expensive option  would need need an estimated subsidy of about $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 would reach an estimated $290,000, or $490,000 after five years.

Even with the board finally giving direction on which option to pursue after years of deliberations, park staff face a tight deadline by the state deadline of having it under contract in 13 months.

Commissioner Steffanie Musich cast the only vote against the more expensive option, but President Liz Wielinski abstained, and commissioners Young and Brad Bourn deferred voting twice before supplying the votes to give the project a go-ahead.  Jon Olson, John Erwin, Meg Forney and Scott Vreeland formed the core supporters.

"I don;t think not building the pool is a good choice," Vreeland said.

Superintendent Jayne Miller said Thursday in an interview that park facilities in general and aquatic facilities specifically don’t pay for their operating costs, requiring tax 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 direction.

She said that the money for borrowing could come from scaling back or cutting or delaying other neighborhood park projects. One deferral  the board specifically ruled out was shifting almost $3 million scheduled to go to renovating Bossen Field in the Nokomis area, the biggest upcoming neighborhood project. The suggestion greatly irked area Commissioner Musich.

Finding money to operate the pool will mean making cuts elsewhere in park operations, Miller said, but she hasn’t identified where.

The pool and a gym in the same building were built as a 1973 addition to Phillips Junior High School, now closed, and were slated for demolition until the Park Board acquired 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.

The Park Board has borrowed money for capital purposes at least twice before.  It took out a $3.1 million mortgage to help it acquire its headquarters building. It also borrowed $14.2 million to build the Neiman Spoprts Complex at Fort Snelling

(Photo: Phillips Community Center's pool has sat empty for the past several years. Staff photo by Kyndell Harkness)