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Leaders express confidence in long-term prospects for wellness center

Funding to build the Maslowski Wellness and Research Center appears secure as the $12.4 million facility rises in southwest Wadena.

But when it opens next fall, if construction proceeds on schedule, just how much - if any - money will the city have to provide for operating costs?

"Until we develop a budget and run that budget for a year, that answer's not going to be here," said Brad Swenson, city administrator. "When we open, we're going to be as efficient as we can. We're going to have to figure out how to make it work."

Mayor Wayne Wolden estimated the facility will require at least a half million dollars a year for employee wages, utilities and other operating expenses.

He and other leaders said they hope proceeds from membership, fundraising, programming, events and a lease with Tri-County Health Care for use of the warm water therapy pool, among other sources, will allow the center to be self-sustaining, but the city may end up chipping in.

"Pools generally don't make much money," Wolden said. "They are spendy to operate."

Early estimates, he said, indicate the city might need to provide about $60,000 a year for the wellness center, likely not from tax dollars but from the city's liquor and electric reserves, which were already tapped to help bridge the gap when bids came in at a $1 million more than projected. It would follow the model of the municipal golf course, a perennially money-losing operation that gets thousands of dollars in liquor and electric money each year.

The old pool required about $20-30,000 in city money, but it came from a line in the general fund budget paid for by tax dollars.

Attracting enough members to allow the facility to pay for all - or at least most - of the long-term operation costs demands successful marketing and promotion, Wolden said.

"That's why I'm excited to get manager interviews going" he said. "We are going to think outside the box and hopefully hire a dynamic manager who will find ways to make this thing operate with hopefully not a lot of cash flow from the taxpayers."

The city council will interview finalists from among 12 applicants in January.

Wolden said he hopes the facility draws a bunch of business memberships, seniors and students of all ages so they develop "lifelong wellness habits ... The proximity lends itself perfectly to that."

One of the challenges officials face, Swenson said, is generating enough money while keeping membership prices competitive. "It's a fine line."

Affordability is a high priority for city leaders, Wolden said. "I personally wouldn't want to see anybody turned away because of their inability to pay."

The wellness center fundraising committee originally planned to raise money for operations, said committee member Joel Beiswenger, TCHC president and CEO.

"But with the cost of the project we've been unable to focus on that effort," he said. "Our first priority has been getting the necessary capital funding to get the project built.

"We feel very comfortable with the program that has been put together, with the projections of use, revenue, cost - we feel they are realistic, not overly optimistic. It should be a viable program for the city."

The committee is within about $40,000 of meeting its goal of raising the additional $300,000 it pledged when construction costs increased. It had already secured more than $4 million, including $1.5 million from the Maslowski Charitable Trust alone.

When they meet the goal, the committee "will at least take a break," said co-chairman Jeff Browne, executive vice president of Wadena State Bank.

Longer term, he said, "I imagine there will be ongoing fundraising to support it, maybe creating a foundation so there's ongoing gifting so this thing doesn't die. The manager will facilitate that process."

Council member Gillette Kempf said she didn't have any "overwhelming concerns" about Wadena being able to sustain the new facility.

"I think the wellness center will be an added benefit to the community and it will help the city of Wadena grow and prosper and attract new businesses and new residents," she said.

There have been plenty of studies that show a city of Wadena's size, along with the surrounding community, should be able to support the center, said Council Member Brian Hillesland.

"It should be viable," he said. "And if the city has to subsidize it a little bit, I'm okay with that. I'm hoping that won't be the case."

Wolden said he's just "excited to get the doors open. We're looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity."