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Users aim to keep Essentia fitness center in Duluth

This building on East Second Street in Duluth houses the Essentia Health Fitness and Therapy Center. Members are worried the fitness center is not a part of Essentia's massive Vision project. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 3
This building on East Second Street in Duluth houses the Essentia Health Fitness and Therapy Center. Members are worried the fitness center is not a part of Essentia's massive Vision project. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 3
This building on East Second Street in Duluth houses the Essentia Health Fitness and Therapy Center. Members are worried the fitness center is not a part of Essentia's massive Vision project. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 3

This year, the first of $1 billion in investments to Duluth medical campuses will begin to take shape in the East Hillside neighborhood adjacent to downtown.

By its completion in 2022, the medical district will hold untold promise, and the cityscape will feature a soaring new Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center — one that's closer to the lake than the facilities it will replace.

But adult users of the hospital's fitness center are worried. They've yet to be told what will happen with the Essentia Health Fitness and Therapy Center, located at 402 E. Second St.

Connected to Essentia's Miller-Dwan building, the fitness center features a therapy pool and a beloved lap pool used by hospital employees, rehabbing patients and scores of other Twin Ports residents who belong to the fitness center as dues-paying members.

"If you're committed to something, you say it: 'We'll make this happen,'" said Judy Dwyer, a longtime fitness center member. "But we don't know."

Essentia Health told the News Tribune it has yet to make the final decision about whether or not to include a community-use fitness center in its reimagining of the hospital.

"Health and wellness are important parts of providing care for our patients and the communities we serve," Essentia spokesperson Maureen Talarico said in a written statement to the News Tribune. "We must prioritize services that only a health care system can provide, like behavioral health and a newborn intensive care unit, and then look at all possible options for the additional services we provide."

Mary Ann Starus, a regular swimmer, started a petition urging Essentia to "keep the lap pool downtown." The online petition had just over 550 signatures on Sunday.

For Starus, Essentia's noncommitment to date in the news media and at public meetings amounts to delaying the inevitable.

"It feels like they've already made a decision and don't want to tell us," Starus said. "It's being treated like just another issue — like what kind of glass they're putting in the windows. We don't feel like it's being acknowledged."

In addition to the online petition, Starus organized a postcard drive, with fitness center users mailing their pleas to Essentia CEO David Herman. She claimed to hear from a person within his orbit who told her, "He says 'enough postcards.'"

When presented with the claim, Herman responded in a written statement over the weekend, stressing patience.

"We appreciate all of the input we have received about the Fitness and Therapy Center from members and the community at large," Herman said. "All of this is being taken into consideration as we plan for the future of our medical facilities."

Herman even seemed to offer hope for devotees of the fitness center by adding, "We look forward to sharing our plans for the Fitness and Therapy Center with the community once they are fully developed."

'1,000 times over'

Users of the fitness center described its appeal in a number of ways. They enjoy its long hours, accommodating of swims at the crack of dawn and dark of night. The people there are non-judgmental and relatable, they said, valuing good health over perfect bodies.

Sources for the story had limited experience with the Duluth Area Family YMCA and its pool roughly seven blocks west of Essentia. Mostly, they say, it's because they've found the hospital fitness center to their liking. But they also say congestion, shorter hours and multi-use practices at other pools can be an issue.

Rita Ronchi"I am just so attached to the pool," Rita Ronchi said. "I have a difficult time sharing a lane and the people are so gracious at the fitness center. They call it my lane when I'm in there."

Ronchi survived a near-fatal crash at age 17 and spent a large chunk of the next 13 years in the rehabilitation facilities at Miller-Dwan and next door at the fitness center. Now 30, she's a regular member with a deep connection to the place.

Ronchi spends up to four days a week at the fitness center, arranging a ride from Superior. She lives with a brain injury and other serious health issues resulting from the crash. A 20-minute swim for some people can mean two hours for Ronchi. It takes time for her to remove her prosthetic right leg before swimming the dozens of laps she strives for in a given week.

"I love being in the pool — it's so freeing," Ronchi said. "I promote that place 1,000 times over. It's just such an amazing handicapped-accessible place."

Ronchi documented her journey in a personal letter to Herman in support of keeping a fitness center in the new hospital.

"There is a lot of work taking place to finalize decisions for our new building," wrote Talarico, the hospital spokesperson. "We appreciate the interest in our project and are committed to providing the public with information as decisions are made."

A ready alternative?

Later this summer, the new Essentia Wellness Center will open in Hermantown, roughly 10 miles from downtown Duluth. It's a $25 million partnership between the state of Minnesota, the city of Hermantown and its schools, St. Louis County, the Duluth Area YMCA, Essentia and several surrounding townships.

The 72,000-square-foot, two-story building will feature an aquatic center, gymnasium and full-day early education programs. The center will also house a full-time YMCA and Essentia Health clinical services, including physical therapy, sports medicine and other preventative care.

There are roughly 1,000 users daily and up to 5,000 members of the hospital's fitness center, sources said — numbers gathered from public meetings, they said. The figures are of the sort which fold neatly into a Hermantown facility billed during its groundbreaking last summer to serve 60,000 residents of southern St. Louis County.

But proponents of the hospital fitness center say taking it out of the downtown area doesn't make sense for a destination health center like Essentia has planned.

"Health encompasses preventive health and wellness," Starus said. "They're going to have improved surgical suites and we're trying to stay out of the surgical suites. We don't want to be patients there, we want to stay healthy."

Dr. Gale Kerns is a retired cardiologist who left Essentia Health in 2013. He works out most mornings at the hospital fitness center, and wrote the News Tribune in support of keeping "a modern fitness center within the overall medical footprint."

"This would be valuable for patients and staff in the medical community, would continue to be a convenience for people living in the area, and would effect a positive public opinion towards Essentia Health," Kerns wrote. "A win-win-win, in my view."