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PRAIRIE VOICES: Improving health

Staley is director of the Grand Forks Park District. The Park District is studying the possibility of opening a publicly owned wellness center on land south of Target, not far from Interstate 29. A consultant has examined the issue and presented ...

Staley is director of the Grand Forks Park District.

The Park District is studying the possibility of opening a publicly owned wellness center on land south of Target, not far from Interstate 29. A consultant has examined the issue and presented the Park Board with several options, as Staley explains here.

The proposal remains in the talking stage. No final decisions have been made, including a decision about whether to put the proposal to a public vote. But the district is actively looking for donors who'd be willing to give money to help build the wellness center, Staley notes.

Staley lives in Grand Forks.

He spoke with Herald staff writer Dorreen Yellow Bird.

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Q. Can you tell us about the proposed wellness center, including its costs? As I understand it, there are two concepts that would be paid for by membership fees and rent, while the third option would need more funding.

A. Consultant Donna Jarmusz of IBIS Group measured the feasibility of paying for the facility with a membership program and other fees. We are confident in her expertise, as she has completed 12 similar centers.

IBIS is taking an enterprise approach; it is measuring the marketplace. In other words, can you provide a big enough facility, equipped well enough to attract enough dollars to cover all those costs? It's called full-cost recovery. We asked her to measure that.

Q. What kind of facility does she suggest would fit Grand Forks needs?

A. She found that a 72,000-square-foot facility would fully recover costs.

Q. And what would such a facility cost?

A. It would be in the $14 million range -- that was last year's number, but it didn't include tennis. If you added tennis, which we have as a prominent part of our activities at our present facilities, we couldn't do it. Tennis would add more square footage, therefore the operations, building costs of tennis and amortizing your yearly fee would not cash-flow. So, we would have to find revenue from other sources.

We are measuring the fees and what people can pay or are willing to pay. We also are selling the facility on 32nd Avenue South.

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Frankly, our board members said they want a bigger facility. We want something that would include tennis and also other things. We have our feet in two different canoes: On the one hand, it is purely private enterprise. On the other hand, we are also community-interested. What kind of extra space is there for other sorts of activities if we can find other revenue?

Q. What else would you like to add?

A. We would like to have aquatics and a second gymnasium for broader programming. Also, part of our original feasibility study is renting out 12,000 square feet, so we need that rental revenue; we are thinking of medical providers. The model we started with is an enterprise model, and it's being enhanced with Altru Hospital.

We saw that model in Buffaloville, Ill. They connected a medical facility with doctors, examination rooms and the whole works. Because of the medical component, that could be a significant chunk of revenue also.

And the medical connection also will bring in fees, which will add to the membership base.

Q. Have you talked with Altru about this idea?

A. We have a "letter of understanding," but it's a go. They have been a significant partner all along.

Our board looked at this (the IBIS Group model) and said that for a community our size, it's too small. We would like to have more space and lower rates. We can get enough at these rates, but is that really being community minded?

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Q. What are the proposed rates?

A. The proposed rate is $55 for singles and $90 for families per month and an estimated 1,800 memberships. That is what the consultant forecast from her data. Today, we are at about $47 for a single.

Q. So, if you had 1,800 memberships, they would pay for the costs of the facility?

A. To put it into perspective, Dickinson (N.D.) did this, and it has about 6,000 members. Our numbers are way low. An estimated 1,800 membership is small for this community.

Q. You mentioned the YMCA. Are they are a partner with this proposed wellness center?

A. Yes. The board approved a partnership with them (April 7).

Q. So, you have the Park District, the YMCA and Altru working together on this project?

A. Right. The YMCA would not move into this facility. It would maintain the current facility it has, but that facility would be upgraded. Our staffs would be trained the same and have the same uniforms. Programming would be closely coordinated. You might have yoga at the YMCA on certain days and yoga at the new facility on certain days.

It would be similar to programs in big cities. If you're a member of Anytime Fitness of Grand Forks, and it has outlets, you can go to any one of them and work out. So, you could go to either this facility or the YMCA with the one membership.

Q. What about Altru? They have a fitness room.

A. They would keep that one, but it would be focused on acute patients. The wellness centers will focus on different needs, but we are working together.

The consultant worked out a framework, and Debbie Thompson, president and CEO of the YMCA Family Center, and Cam Tweten, director of Center Court Fitness Center, worked out more details within her framework.

Q. A Herald story said you were establishing a Grand Forks Park and Recreation Foundation that will raise money. How does that work?

A. There is another group working to raise money for the fitness center called Forks Area Health and Wellness Committee. It is working on an actual campaign.

Q. It is going to raise money just for this wellness center?

A. They are going to raise funds for this wellness center and also upgrades to the YMCA.

Q. When the consultant estimated that 1,800 memberships could be raised from this community, did she they take into consideration that UND has a big, new wellness center where students can go?

A. She considered UND. First of all, 1,800 is the minimum. We expect many more. We looked at what is happening in other communities and from her standpoint, it's the minimum needed to make it work.

We both believe there will be more membership. She came up with those numbers after she measured the market -- what people were willing to pay -- in three different ways and then combined them. They were very conservative numbers. It's a feasibility approach and not an exact measurement.

IBIS did take into account the university fitness center, the YMCA and the quick "in-and-out" type of fitness industry such as those in malls. Both of these kinds of centers can exist within the fitness industry.

Q. The community is concerned about the jail and its problems with overestimating revenue. There also has been controversy over whether the Riverside Pool should be renovated or eliminated. The pool is going to be voted on. Do you think the wellness center would or should go for a vote, too?

A. We want to reserve that decision. We want to see how this fund drive goes. In other words, the building costs will be paid for through donations. We have that kind of hope.

Aberdeen, S.D., has a population of 25,000 and built a 72,000-square-foot fitness center. It raised $7 million, and it took four years to do it. It also got some federal grants and covered the entire cost of the fitness center at that time.

If we raise enough money, then there's no risk to the taxpayer. There would be no reason to go to the taxpayer. But if we can't get that kind of money, then yes, I think the board wants to look at that.

We don't know yet. Right now, we've raised $25,000 in grants and donations just to fund the capital campaign. We got $15,000 from Dakota Medical Foundation in Fargo to fund a grant writer and professional fund raiser training.

Q. Are you concerned about raising funds in climate where the economy is on a downturn? Money is tight.

A. The consultant didn't do anything toward the capital campaign. She did do a second study to give us more options, and the capital costs went up 29 percent in one year. We had to revise those numbers.

There are a lot of generational dollars about to switch hands. North Dakota has a lot of dollars in the hands of people who want to pass it one to the next generation. That is what we are looking at.

Q. Are there any other partners for this project besides Altru and the YMCA?

A. The Human Nutrition Research Center of Grand Forks hopes to put three scientists in this project. One of those scientists is a leading researcher on child obesity.

Q. Do you have an agreement with them?

A. We have a nonbinding agreement, which will move to a binding agreement as the whole process goes forward.

In addition, last week I got a letter from the Senior Citizens Center talking about their becoming involved in the wellness center. We agreed to continue looking at them, but nothing is for sure.

If you think about it, it makes sense. The idea is to get seniors more active. It might be a separate building that connects to the center, but they'll have to find the money for that.

At Center Court, we have a senior fitness program and get federal dollars for a program called the "Silver Sneaker" that pays for their membership. It's an on going program.

Also, Blue Cross and Blue Shield will pay half of your fees if you visit the center 12 times a month, and you're covered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

So, if you have a single membership, it would potentially cost about $27 with the Blue Cross help. It's this idea of putting money in prevention rather that treatment later on. It is cheaper.

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