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Minnesotans dive into new pools
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The Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center in Willmar represents the new trend in city pools. The pool has two four-story water slides and plenty of kid friendly equipment. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
For years the old neighborhood pool was the best place to cool off on hot summer days. But across the region, cities have had to close those old pools because of expensive repairs and declining attendance. In a day of air conditioners and cable TV, pools don't serve as community gathering places much anymore. But now city leaders are trying to attract a new generation of swimmers and splashers with more exciting pools.

St. Cloud, Minn. — The St. Cloud Municipal Pool sits in a large park near the city's downtown. Built in 1946, it's where several generations of St. Cloud kids spent their summers.

Even Mayor John Ellenbecker remembers splashing around here in the 1960s and 70s.

"I have vivid memories of the swim meet we'd have every summer. The swim club would have a large swim meet and it was the place to be," Ellenbecker said.

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Image St. Cloud's dry pool

This a large rectangular pool made for swimming laps. It was once one of the best venues in the state for swim meets. Now the only thing left is a dark green stew of rainwater in the deep end. It's been closed for two years.

The pool started to show its age 20 years ago. That's when water began to seep through cracks in the pool floor. The final straw came two summers ago, when the surrounding neighborhood was evacuated because of a chlorine gas leak.

The city considered fixing the problems. But Mayor Ellenbecker says the bill was more than a million dollars.

"To put a million dollars in this pool wouldn't be prudent. We'd be better off starting from scratch and building a modern aquatic facility that people would want to use," Ellenbecker said.

These days most people don't see the fun in splashing around in an old square pool. They want a pool like the new Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center in Willmar.

On a sunny summer day, 9-year old Nathanial Chester is at the new facility in Wilmar with his younger brother.

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Image Off the deep end

"I like the water slides and the kiddie pool has lots of stuff I like," Chester said.

The Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center opened in July. It's actually three pools connected by a series of canals. There are two, four-story water slides, and all kinds of kid-friendly equipment squirting water into the air.

Cities just don't build plain old pools anymore. That's according to pool manager Rob Baumgarn.

"The square shaped pool is pretty much non-existent. They have a lot of add-ons to them. Pools now are so modernized, you'll never know what you'll see," Baumgarn said.

Baumgarn says kids and families aren't satisfied coming to a pool just for a soak, they want to do something.

"They want to be interact with everything, instead of just sitting and wading in a pool, they can actually have some enjoyment by playing around and playing with the features we have," Baumgarn said.

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Image A view of the pool

Replacing the old neighborhood pool with an aquatic center isn't cheap. This pool happened only because a benefactor donated $1.2 million.

Not far away in Benson a similar outdoor water park opened in June. City residents agreed to a 20-year property tax hike to pay off that pool's nearly one million dollar price tag.

But even watery playgrounds like those aren't enough for some cities. Monticello opened an indoor aquatic center four years ago. St. Cloud hopes to do the same within a few years.

If cities are going to spend $5 million or more on a new pool, it needs to be open year round.

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