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Park board chooses 'Choice' for wellness center

The proposed new fitness center received a name Tuesday. Now all it needs for construction to begin is a few more million dollars. Choice Financial, a relative newcomer to banking in Grand Forks, will pay $2.75 million over 25 years for the namin...

The proposed new fitness center received a name Tuesday. Now all it needs for construction to begin is a few more million dollars.

Choice Financial, a relative newcomer to banking in Grand Forks, will pay $2.75 million over 25 years for the naming rights.

The Choice Wellness Center will be the second major Grand Forks facility to acquire the name of a banking institution. Alerus Financial paid $3 million in 2000 for changing the name of the Grand Forks events center from the Aurora to the Alerus Center.

"That's a big commitment from us because we're not as large of a bank as some," said Brian Johnson, a top executive at Choice Financial. "But we find enough value in this to make it work for us."

Johnson said the commitment of his bank, in the Grand Forks market for less than six years, "has the potential to impact almost every person in this community."

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Not only is the naming rights almost a fifth of the expected construction costs of $15 million, but its value also excludes likely prompting others to give, both at the corporate and private level.

"This is the cornerstone that hopefully lets us do this project," said Bill Hutchison, Park Board president. "With this commitment, hopefully others will step up, too."

Johnson said Choice Financial became interested three years ago and has spent the past year in negotiations. While other companies expressed interest, none reached the level of interest of Choice Financial, Park District officials said.

The center will be located on the southern edge of the city, close to South Washington Street and a few hundred feet from one of Choice Financial's two Grand Forks banks. The center will be built on land donated by Tim Crary of Crary Real Estate.

Johnson and Crary are related through marriage. Bert Johnson of Walhalla is an uncle to Brian Johnson and the father-in-law of Crary. Bert Johnson is a stockholder of Choice Financial, which was formed in 2001 with the merger of banks located in Walhalla, Langdon, Grafton and West Fargo.

Brian Johnson said there is no connection between the land donation and the naming rights because the businesses are owned separately. Hutchison confirmed that the land donation was not contingent on the naming rights nor was the naming rights contingent on choosing the south-end site over another location just south of SuperTarget.

The board voted 4-0 to accept the naming rights bid, which had an original $5 million price tag, with commissioner Jeff Panzer abstaining because he's a Choice Financial employee.

Cam Tweten, Center Court Fitness manager and the co-chair of the Forks Area Health and Wellness Committee that is running the fund-raising campaign, said Choice Financial's commitment pulls them very close to having the necessary $10 million in cash -- not in-kind donations nor promised rent money -- to build the $15 million model. Plans are to expand the fitness center when more money becomes available.

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"We still have some work ahead of us before it's a done deal, but we feel very confident that we can build something," Tweten said. "Hopefully we can reach the level of all the things we think should be in the first phase, and then have a second phase."

In addition to the fitness center, $1 million is earmarked for improvements to the YMCA and another $1 million in scholarships for low-income children.

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to rbakken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: PARK BOARD
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