VERMILLION — It took four years, but the first shovels of dirt have been turned for the new Prentis Park swimming pool.
City officials held the official groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday afternoon at the site. The planned $5.25 million in park improvements includes $4 million for the pool.
Vermillion City Manager John Prescott told the Press and Dakotan one group of young residents has grown up with the idea of a new swimming pool.
"At the start, we asked all of the students who were sixth graders at Vermillion Middle School what they wanted to see in a pool. We thought that would be a good group to ask for ideas," he said. "Now, those students are finishing their sophomore year at Vermillion High School. So, it’s been more than four years."
The new amenities include a lazy river, water slides, a basketball hoop, a one-meter diving tower, shade structures and a zero-depth entry, water features, benches and shade.
As part of the bond issue, other park improvements include new basketball courts, new bathroom facilities at the baseball field and additional parking.
This summer season, the current 50-plus-year old pool will open May 26, weather permitting, and close approximately July 30, Vermillion Mayor Jack Powell said. The new pool is scheduled to open around Memorial Day 2017.
"We’ll be closed about one month early this year," Powell said. "It was really important to us that the pool stay open as long as possible. We didn’t want people to lose a complete swimming season."
Wednesday’s short program marked a large milestone for the project, Prescott said.
"We did a tremendous amount of studies and work before the dirt was turned," he said. "First, we needed to identify the issue and present it to the Council. We worked to find the plan that was right for the community at the time. We recognized many things have changed during the last 50 years."
The city drew upon a wide range of community residents for input on the desired amenities, Prescott said. In addition, the process used consultants and two pool committees who further studied potential features and costs.
City officials learned a new pool would prove a better investment in the long run, rather than pumping money into the current pool, Powell said.
The mayor pointed to the continuous loss of water in the old pool, raising questions about costs for a new pump and continued maintenance.
In that respect, city officials looked at the prospect of a new pool rather than just maintaining the old pool, Powell said. The project also represented the opportunity to incorporate new features that would attract not only Vermilion residents but visitors from across the region, he said.
"We knew, from day one, that we didn’t just want a hole in the ground that held water," Powell said.
The city wanted a quality project but wasn’t going overboard in its spending for the pool and park improvements, Prescott added. City officials drew up a broad funding package that was acceptable to taxpayers, which included a boost in the malt beverage tax that was eventually referred.
"We determined how we were going to fund it," he said.
The $3.1 million bond issue became a key component in the funding package. The bond was placed on the November 2014 ballot where Vermillion voters overwhelmingly endorsed it by a 3-to-1 margin. The 75 percent approval rate far surpassed the required 60 percent margin for passage of the bond issue.
In addition, Vermillion voters last July approved keeping the Malt Beverage ordinance. The ordinance allows the city to collect an extra 5 percent on the wholesale costs of all malt beverages sold in the community.
Powell said he was pleased with the strong showing of support at the polls both times. However, he said the delay did push back the start of pool construction by a year.
Waiting for the results of last July’s election also contributed to higher project costs as only one company placed a bid for the project, Powell said.
The bids were awarded Feb. 29, and the contractor started putting up fence posts Tuesday for the construction area, Prescott said.
Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony recognized City Council members, pool committee members and project developers, Burbach Aquatics of Platteville, Wisconsin, who serves as project architect and engineer. Project contractors include Ricchio Inc. of Gurnee, Illinois; Mechanical Inc. of Freeport, Illinois; and Welfl Construction of Yankton.
Nate Welch, executive director of the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company (VCDC), provided opening remarks. The speakers included Powell, pool committee member Shane Nordyke and Vermillion Parks and Recreation Director James Goblirsch.
Goblirsch described the groundbreaking ceremony as a "momentous occasion" marking the replacement of a pool which has served the community for more than a half-century. In the process, Vermillion is positioning itself well for the next 50 years, he added.
The "ceremonial dig" featured both city officials and community members turning dirt under a bright, warm spring sky.
Crews will now move full steam ahead with construction on both the pool and park areas.
In moving forward with the plans, Powell sees the Prentis Park improvements as an important quality-of-life issue for Vermillion.
"I think this will play an important role in serving our current residents and surrounding communities," he said. "I think it will remain an important feature as we work to attract and keep new residents and businesses as well as students and staff at the University of South Dakota."
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.