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Hospital says 'no' to Wrenshall fitness center plan

A proposed partnership between the Wrenshall School District and Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet to build a wellness and fitness center was nixed by the CMH Board of Directors earlier this month, although CMH CEO Rick Breuer said that doesn't mean the two entities won't ever reach an agreement.

"We loved the idea conceptually of partnering with schools and getting outside our walls," Breuer said, "but we couldn't make it work with the numbers."

The school and the hospital talked concepts, that's all, he added.

The proposed fitness and wellness center is part of a $12.5 million building plan that includes remodeling and expanding the current educational space at the preK-12 Wrenshall school, which is 60 years old. It also includes tearing down the current and separate recreation building (which was purchased used in 1997) and building a new structure that would house a gymnasium, a new front entrance and bus drop off, modern cafeteria, district office and several classrooms and labs.

Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro had noted in her March column in the Wrenshall School and Community "Images" newsletter that a wellness and fitness center will be added to the new building "through a partnership with Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet," a statement that the Pine Journal echoed in its story on the school district referendum March 9. The plan outlined in the newsletter had membership to the fitness center open to community members as well as school staff and students, plus on-site rooms for CMH to see patients needing physical therapy and other health-care services.

It is an idea that has worked in other area school districts, although when Esko put in its fitness center and partnered with then-St. Mary's hospital to staff it and offer physical therapy there 19 years ago, they were the first school district in the United States to have that kind of partnership between school and a medical facility, said Julian Bertogliat, who was activities director then and is a school board member now.

"We had a weight room and it was a disaster," said Bertogliat. "I wanted to put in a fitness center so it would benefit both the public and the school."

The school district built the fitness center as part of the new school, and the hospital helped pay for equipment (along with grants and state funds) and staffed the building. The center sold memberships to the community and students could use the facility for free.

"It's worked out great for us," Bertogliat said, adding that Proctor and Two Harbors have built fitness centers since then and have some kind of partnership with Essential Health.

Wrenshall's proposed $1 million wellness and fitness center will be added to the new building, district literature explains, but financed through "a lease-levy agreement" between the district and a now-yet-to-be-determined partner — and not through the $12.5 million building bond that voters will vote on April 18.

The property tax impacts are also broken down separately. According to district figures, on a home valued at $150,000, the school facilities work would mean an increase of $270 per year (or $23 a month) in the school district portion of their property taxes, while the fitness/wellness center could cost a homeowner with a $150,000 home a maximum of $30 a year in (additional) property taxes.

The proposed wellness and fitness center will happen with or without CMH on board, Belcastro said, adding Monday that the school district is planning to present CMH with another proposal soon.

"It is the hope of the school district to still be able to come up with a workable plan that will benefit the hospital and the Wrenshall School and community," she said.

Breuer said it wasn't the intention of the hospital board "to shut the door" on different proposals from the school district, rather to vote against the proposal that had been discussed.

"Our position right now is that we don't have a deal and we aren't in negotiations," Breuer said. "We need a model that will work for us, so we'll see what happens."

And if CMH still says "no" to the next plan?

"The district will continue to pursue other health-care entities," Belcastro responded.

Want to know more? There is one final community meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. March 28 in the Wrenshall School Commons. The special election on the $12.5 million bond issue and building proposal is set for April 18 inside the school's Rec building. The school website (www.wrenshall.k12.mn.us) contains more information and videos about the building's current condition and the project.

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