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Cottage Grove moves to make a splash with aquatic upgrade at park

Cottage Grove's aging city pool will go dry for good this fall, but those looking to splash around likely won't have to leave town next summer.

The city is set to move forward on plans for a splash pad -- which Cottage Grove Park and Recreation Director Zac Dockter describes as an aquatic playground, with spray nozzles and water guns to help keep cool on hot summer days -- and additional improvements at Highlands Park. The park is near 70th Street and Hinton Avenue.

With no standing water, maintenance on a splash pad is far cheaper than Cottage Grove's municipal pool, Dockter said. And, with no slide, diving board or splash area at the old pool, the aquatic playground could offer more fun for the city's kids, he said.

"Our current pool, for lack of a better term, is basically a big bath tub," Dockter said. "It's not very interactive. Now, the splash pad is very interactive," with room for kids to run, splash and play.

City officials say the play area could be the first of four at city parks, and will serve as a replacement for the decades-old pool that is operated jointly by the city of Cottage Grove and the Southeast Area YMCA.

City Council members directed staff to draw up plans for the splash pad and park building improvements last week. The project is estimated to cost $650,000.

Funding for the project is proposed to come from the Park Trust Fund. That fund has a balance of $750,000, according to city figures. Officials said the fund would be replenished with the annual savings generated by closing the pool.

The city considered attaching the project to a referendum to be held this fall on a proposed community center. But, the council voted 4-1 to move the splash pad project forward with a goal of opening the water feature next summer.

Since 2003, the city has contracted out pool programming to YMCA while covering costs of maintaining the pool -- more than $83,000 last year, according to the city.

That, coupled with drastically declining attendance -- down from 19,000 swimmers in 1996 to around 7,000 in 2010 -- and the YMCA's stated desire to end the arrangement because of its own financial constraints means officials at Cottage Grove City Hall are exploring their options for replacing the municipal pool.

Not every council member is convinced the splash pad-for-pool trade-off is a good one.

"A [$500,000] sprinkler is not a pool," city council member Derrick Lehrke said.

Dockter and other officials say operating a splash pad in lieu of the more than 40-year-old pool will save the city more than $56,000 per year. Plus, based on what Dockter said he has heard from cities that have installed splash pads, including Apple Valley, St. Cloud and Robbinsdale, officials said they expect more residents to use the new water amenity than have paid $4 -- $6 for non-residents -- to take a dip in the city pool.

"Every city we talk to who has put these in they've blown away their projections of [how many] would use it," Mayor Myron Bailey said.