In the land of zero natural lakes, Rochester has a pool drought

A children plays in the pool
Michelle Henslin, of Rochester, watches her son, Maxton Harding work his way along the pool edge at the Soldiers Field pool in Rochester.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

It was the perfect weather for swimming on a recent weekday as Ben Boldt surveyed the scene at Soldiers Field Pool in downtown Rochester. The air temperature was 88 degrees, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

It was also exactly the type of day the pool would reach capacity early, said Boldt, recreation supervisor for the Rochester Parks and Recreation Department. 

"Any day that it's going to be in the mid 80s to 90 degrees, especially with only one pool in operation right now, we're going to have to turn people away,” he said.

That’s becoming a more common experience in Rochester because finding easy access to a pool is harder than ever. 

The city, which has roughly 120,000 people, is growing fast and more people want to swim. 

Rochester can’t help its unfortunate geography. In the land of 10,000-plus natural lakes, it's in one of four counties that have none. 

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And while there are private pools everywhere — at country clubs, athletic centers, the senior center and even in schools — they only serve a narrow portion of Rochester's population, and are often expensive to join or at least hard for everyone to access. 

Meanwhile, the city is grappling with two pool closures. The YMCA closed this past winter, eliminating an inexpensive indoor pool option. And at the start of an unusually hot summer, a second, smaller public pool has been closed for repairs. 

And the fact that all these pools are getting old doesn't help, Boldt said. 

"Any morning when we get up and our maintenance staff comes in to check the pool, something could have gone wrong, that would force a closure. So we really need to get these facilities updated."

A kids plays with a ball
Maxton Harding looks to his mom, Michelle Henslin, before getting into the water at the Soldiers Field pool in Rochester.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

A safe environment

City Council Member Shaun Palmer likes to remind people that it’s been a long time since Rochester built a new pool. 

“I'm 63 years old, and we haven't built a new pool since I was born,” he said. 

Palmer is passionate about swimming. He's been a lifeguard and taught the sport. He believes being able to swim is a basic necessity in a state dominated by bodies of water. 

"I think we need three outdoor pools. People have criticized the pools, saying they are expensive,” he said. “Well, they kind of are. But they offer swim lessons, they offer the ability to come in a safe environment and swim."

There are some solutions on the horizon. The city council just made public pool admission cheaper for the summer. Referendum dollars are slated for pool upgrades and city officials continue to talk about building a massive recreation complex. 

Adding more pool space would also be a positive response to the city's shifting demographics, said Palmer. As the city grows, it's attracting more people from around the world — sometimes from places where swimming isn't taught. 

He recalls teaching one Mayo Clinic trainee how to swim.

"After she graduated she sent me a note saying, ‘To learn to swim was harder and more beneficial to me than being a doctor,’” he said. 

A father with his daughter pose for a portrait
Mahmoud Hagi of Rochester and his daughter Asma Abdulkadir enjoy the Soldiers Field pool in Rochester.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

A jigsaw puzzle

Currently, there's a 200-plus person waiting list for swimming lessons, said Autumn Kappes, CEO of Rochester Swim Club.

Every year, her organization cobbles together pool time at locations around the city for lessons.

"It has been a jigsaw puzzle. However, it's gotten harder and harder,” she said. 

Kappes said the pandemic sent demand for the non-contact sport through the roof.

“The YMCA closing was a huge loss to the city. And a lot of people have lessons there. They're one of the biggest lesson providers in the area,” she said. 

The swim club has been using Soldiers Field for lessons so far, and they hope they can return to the second public pool across town when it opens again. 

They're also trying to hash out a deal on indoor pool space with the senior center. But that doesn't alleviate high demand right now, Kappes said. 

Lessons hard to find

Bahsan Awale is among the lucky parents who snagged lessons for her twin boys. But for Awale, finding lessons has come with some logistical gymnastics. 

"Each time they open [for registration], I have to be ready at 6:01 a.m. And sometimes as a working mom, I cannot find the time slots that I need,” she said. 

Awale and her boys rarely come to the Soldiers Field Pool otherwise because it's always so crowded, she said. 

"So my biggest disappointment in Rochester as a taxpayer, is that this city offers nothing for families who have smaller kids,” she said. 

If Awale takes her boys swimming for fun — or to a splash pad, because Rochester doesn't have one of those, either — it's usually in a different town. 

A mother and her two sons stand
Bahsan Awale says she rarely brings her twin boys, Omar and Othman, to Soldiers Field Pool because it's always so crowded.
Catharine Richert | MPR News