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Rice Park wading pool in Willmar, Minn., closes for good

WILLMAR -- For at least two generations of Willmar youngsters, the Rice Park wading pool has been a favorite place for splashing around on hot summer days.

But the knell has finally sounded for the aging pool, which closed for good this month.

"The useful life of it has expired," Steve Brisendine, director of Willmar Community Education and Recreation, said this week.

The pool's demise is no surprise to city and park officials, who have seen it coming for some time. A consultant who evaluated the pool about four years ago concluded it had a limited life expectancy remaining.

Park crews knew the end was nigh when they tried three times this year to fill the pool with water, only to see it drain dry each time.

The source of the leak hasn't been found. The leak may lie deep within the pool structure, or it may be due to the crumbling and decaying of the walls, Brisendine told the Willmar City Council Monday night.

Either way, it spells the end of the road for the wading pool, which has been a feature of local summer life for more than 50 years. The pool opened in 1961 as a project of the Willmar Jaycees, who raised the money to get it built.

Willmar City Council member Steve Ahmann voiced fond nostalgia for the pool. "That's been a great park. ... It's pretty vital to have that in the community," he said.

Designed for children ages 6 and under, the wading pool has been a popular summer hangout for local youngsters. As the years went by, however, its 1960s-era construction began to fall short of tightening safety codes, forcing more spending on upgrading and maintenance.

City officials considered closing the pool at least twice, in 2004 when the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center opened, and again in 2011 when several thousand dollars -- ultimately donated by the Willmar Jaycees -- had to be spent to bring the pool's drain cover into compliance with a new state law. Each time, the wading pool earned a reprieve until finally becoming, in Brisendine's words, "obsolete."

City officials have not decided yet what to do with the space occupied by the wading pool.. One option is a splash park, Brisendine said. Another possibility is a new wading pool.

"Those are questions to be answered," he said.

His department is undertaking a park planning and capital improvement process to examine the city's entire park system, and a review of Rice Park will be part of this initiative, Brisendine said. There will be opportunities for "lots of public input" before the plan is finalized, he said.