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Bathroom vandalism plaguing Rice Park and Robbins Island

Shelby Lindrud / Tribune At the Robbins Island beach bathrooms, even when closed, the facilities have been targeted by vandals. At one point, they climbed on the roof and pushed six plastic bottles down the vent and then poured sand into the vent. The Robbins Island bathrooms at the beach have been closed for the most part, only open at certain times.1 / 4
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune To try and reduce the opportunity for people to cause havoc, the city of Willmar has decided to lock the bathroom at Rice Park at 3 p.m. daily.2 / 4
Submitted photo Willmar Public Works staff have been fishing plastic bottles and cups out of the toilets at both Rice Park and Robbins Island for several weeks. It is believed someone is intentionally vandalizing the bathrooms.3 / 4
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune To try and reduce the opportunity for people to cause havoc, the city of Willmar has decided to lock the bathroom at Rice Park at 3 p.m. daily.4 / 4

WILLMAR — It has been a good summer for Willmar's park system, except for one shameful and frustrating issue: The new bathrooms at Rice Park and the bathrooms located on the beach at Robbins Island have been the ongoing target of bathroom vandals since the middle of June.

"They have been intentionally plugging the toilets" with things like styrofoam coffee cups and plastic water bottles, Willmar Public Works Superintendent Gary Manzer said. "Then people use the toilets."

One can imagine the mess that awaits the Public Works crew who are then called out to unclog and clean the affected facilities.

"I've seen them filled to the top with stuff. Stuff no one should have to deal with," Manzer said.

It usually isn't a quick fix either. The foreign material is usually stuffed far down the pipes, making it difficult to retrieve. Then the toilets have to be cleaned. On average it can take an hour or two of staff time to fix, and some of the time the staff are working overtime.

"It takes you away from other things," Manzer said.

One incident at Robbins Island was so bad it took two employees a total of six hours to fix it. There was even a concern the concrete was going to have to be torn up in order to reach the pipes, Manzer said. Another time, when the bathroom building was locked, person or persons unknown climbed on the roof and stuffed pop bottles down the bathroom vent and then poured sand into it.

"The staff pulled six pop bottles out," Manzer said.

The issue has gotten so bad the city has made the decision to close the beach restrooms completely at Robbins Island at times and reduce hours at Rice. For the foreseeable future, the bathrooms at Rice, which are brand new and part of the overall project that brought the splash pad and shelter to the park, will be locked at 3 p.m. everyday. The changing room at the Rice Park shelter has been closed down for good, since unknown individuals have been using it as a bathroom.

"There is no reason we shouldn't be leaving them open 24/7," Manzer said of the restrooms. "It's a shame."

Closing the restrooms at two of the most popular parks in Willmar has not been popular with the public.

"No one wants to use the porta potties, that is the last resort," Manzer said, though he feels he doesn't have a choice. "It is really, really frustrating."

To help combat the vandalism, the city has looked into purchasing security camera systems.

Public Works Director Sean Christensen, at Monday's Willmar City Council meeting, said each system could cost around $6,000. Currently ,only the Destination Playground has a camera system, which was purchased and installed as part of the overall construction of the park.

"It's maddening," Christensen said about the vandalism.

The council did not make a decision on the cameras, but Manzer said he thinks they could be a help, either working as a deterrent to keep people from doing the vandalism in the first place or helping identify possible suspects.

"You obviously can't have cameras inside, but perhaps cameras could catch the person going in or out," Mazner said. "Maybe cameras are part of a park now, unfortunately."

While the bathroom vandalism has been disappointing and frustrating, overall the parks have been are in good shape. The splash pad at Rice continues to be busy nearly everyday the weather cooperates and there have been no issues with the water features, Manzer said.

The Destination Playground also continues to be immensely popular, Manzer said. The community seems to have taken ownership of the playground, which Manzer believes has kept any possible vandalism to a bare minimum, along with the security cameras.

Manzer wants the public to do the same for other parts of Robbins Island and other parks.

"My hope is the public will keep an eye out," Manzer said.