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DWU president, donor call for effort on combined wellness center

Hundreds fill the Sherman Center on Thursday at Dakota Wesleyan University as officials announce an $11.5 million building project. (Chris Huber/Republic)

The $11.5 million health sciences center on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus is just part of a plan to improve the health of area residents.

Another big part of that plan is building a wellness center in collaboration with the city of Mitchell and Avera Queen of Peace Health Services, according to DWU President Bob Duffett.

The new sciences center could be teamed with a new wellness center to boost the health of people in the Mitchell area, Duffett said.

"Wellness is the key," he said.

Building a wellness center on the school's campus or somewhere in the city has been discussed for the last several years in Mitchell.

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

On Aug. 15, the Mitchell City Council agreed to help fund a $115,000 study on possibly expanding or renovating the Corn Palace.

The city has said it wants a better, larger Corn Palace, ideally one with a bigger arena that would allow it to host state basketball tournaments and draw bigger-name entertainers. City leaders have considered joining an arena with a wellness center and indoor pool at DWU, though momentum of late seems to have shifted toward expanding the Corn Palace and doing a separate wellness/pool project at DWU.

Paul Christen, who along with his wife, Donna, donated $5 million to the new health sciences building, said he hopes DWU will build new wellness facilities as well.

"I hope that Mitchell will step forward and do their part, as this institution is one of the best assets of Mitchell," Christen said. "Other communities would die for an institution such as this."

Mayor Lou Sebert said he feels the joint project may yet happen.

"There's still discussions going on," Sebert said. "I think the three-way joint venture should be looked at seriously."

Sebert said there have been "lots of discussions and meetings," and he didn't attend all of them.

The mayor said he feels the Corn Palace study doesn't mean the city is backing away from a wellness center/arena.

"I think they're two different issues and I think you need to look to the future," Sebert said. "Could that affect it one way or another, I would say yes. It depends how big the project is.

"When the time comes they're going to review both of them. Is it possible that one project could hinder another? I would say there is some possibility in that. It's just kind of open right now."

Duffett said DWU backs any and all efforts to improve the Corn Palace.

"The Corn Palace is iconic and we need to have a strong Corn Palace," he said.

Duffett does not feel an expanded or new Corn Palace means the end of plans for a wellness center.

"We think it's not either-or," he said. "It can be both-and."

Avera Queen of Peace Hospital spokeswoman Trish Delaney said the hospital continues to back the idea of a joint project.

She said new CEO and President Tom Clark is on board with the project. His predecessor, Tom Rasmusson, was a leading advocate for a wellness center before he retired earlier this year.

"Yes, we are very supportive of the concept of a wellness center and looking forward to meeting with all the entities to see how the project might move along," Delaney said.