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City of Mitchell considers Rec expansion, indoor pool

Discussions are under way to expand the Mitchell Recreation Center, pictured here, and add an indoor aquatic center. (Chris Huber/Republic)

The city of Mitchell is considering ending its plans to participate in a joint wellness center project with Dakota Wesleyan University and Avera Queen of Peace Hospital.

City officials have instead started discussions on expanding the city-owned Recreation Center, including building a large, indoor aquatic center at the facility.

"Correct," said Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department Director Dusty Rodiek. "We've had just a preliminary look into it so far."

Rodiek said the wellness center project has not moved along as well as anticipated.

"The project has not gained as much traction at this point as they had hoped," he said.

Rodiek said he's unsure what that means for an Avera-DWU wellness center.

"I haven't had much conversation with the hospital, but I did have a conversation with Dakota Wesleyan," he said. "They are going to continue their fundraising."

Rodiek met with DWU Provost and Executive Vice President Amy Novak in August to discuss the project. He detailed the meeting with the Parks Board at its October meeting and asked for direction.

The board advised him to "move forward with design plans for expanding the Recreation Center which would not only meet the current needs of the community but future needs as well," according to minutes of the meeting that were published this week.

On Monday, he said all discussions so far have been in the early stage and no definite plans have been made.

"Right now, it's very preliminary," Rodiek said. "We're going to look at some of the options. We have discussed different features."

In addition to an indoor aquatic center, expanded locker rooms have been looked at, he said.

No dollar figure has been attached to the project, Rodiek said, nor has a way to pay for the expansion been hammered out.

"We have no idea as far as the potential for funding or anything like that," he said. "We want to explore the options and see what's feasible."

Pools and aquatic centers have been a very public issue in Mitchell in the past decade.

The city opened a $4.1 million outdoor aquatic center in Hitchcock Park in 2005. It replaced an old outdoor pool at the city park.

In 2009, the Mitchell School District closed the Mitchell Middle School's indoor pool in an effort to reduce costs.

The MMS pool was used for physical education classes at the school and by the Mitchell Aquatic Club, a nonschool-sanctioned group that used the pool as its home base.

In November 2009, the MAC placed a temporary, above-ground, indoor pool at 1401 N. Main St.

A few months later, on Feb. 28, 2010, the pool burst, sending 85,000 gallons of water rushing through neighboring businesses in the North Star Plaza.

The MAC later re-opened at the site with a new pool and has reported no problems since that time, but the club's desire for a permanent, competition-sized, indoor pool persists.

Rodiek said the city didn't want to "hold anyone else up" if they wanted to move ahead with a wellness center.

Mayor Lou Sebert said while the discussions have changed, it's too early to say the city won't join in the wellness center project.

"I wouldn't say we've dropped away from it," Sebert said. "The Park Department has had conversation with Dakota Wesleyan ... and the Park Board has decided they would look at alternatives regarding the swimming pool, alternatives to the joint venture with the city, Avera and Dakota Wesleyan."

Sebert said just because the city is examining options, that doesn't mean it won't end up sharing the task of building a wellness center.

"At this stage of the game, I wouldn't say it's a done deal," the mayor said. "It's just been dragging on so long and nothing seems to happen. I don't know if it's the city's fault or the other two parties."

He said things have changed, with new members on the City Council who didn't take part in earlier discussions on the wellness center proposal, as well as the retirement of former Avera Queen of Peace President and CEO Tom Rasmusson, who was a leading proponent of the wellness center concept.

"It's certainly a change in personnel," Sebert said. "I certainly would think a change in personnel slows things up and they may have different ideas on how you approach it."

Theresa Kriese, DWU's vice president of business and advancement, said the wellness center plan is still alive and breathing, even if the city walks away from the joint project.

"I think we were aware of the fact they are having discussions on other options," Kriese said. "This does not kill our wellness center project. It just changes the shape of the partnership."

She said DWU and the hospital may decide to team up and build the center on the DWU campus. Preliminary plans call for it to be located on the southeast corner of the campus near where the new health sciences building will be constructed, Kriese said.

"We would want it near our current wellness center. We're still in discussion with them. We're still open to partners," she said. "It could be a two-way partnership. The hospital and the university had been talking about it even before the city was brought on board."

Avera Queen of Peace President and CEO Tom Clark said he hasn't spoke with DWU officials but isn't ready to call the proposal dead.

"Avera Queen of Peace still considers this to be a good project and we plan to continue discussions to determine what form it might take as it moves forward," Clark said in a statement released to The Daily Republic.

In 2010, then-CEO and president Rasmusson envisioned a proposed $18 million facility with a walking track, wellness programs and other facilities while offering a competition-size indoor pool. Youth and recreational basketball, volleyball and wrestling teams could play there and hold tournaments, he said.

At the time, Rasmusson said it would be a "showplace" for Mitchell and ground could be broken by spring 2012. But progress slowed after Rasmusson retired.

In August, DWU President Bob Duffett compared the situation to searching for the right combination on a lock.

"They want an arena," Duffett said then, referring to the city, "and we want wellness. We're trying to figure out if we can put it together in a way that makes economic sense."

Plans for a wellness center and a larger arena have been tossed around for nearly a decade. In September 2007, Mitchell voters overwhelmingly rejected a property tax increase to fund construction of a 7,000-seat arena.

The wellness center, also referred to as a community center, came to the fore in the last few years as a way to combine the city's desire for an arena and indoor pool with DWU's and Avera's desire for a new wellness center. But in the past several months, the city has now focused its arena-related attentions on an expansion of the Corn Palace, which reportedly could cost $20 million or more.