Essentia Health’s fitness and therapy center is moving to Miller Hill Mall, the health system announced on Tuesday, with better locker facilities, an expanded exercise area and a therapy pool, but without the lap pool that was part of the downtown campus.
The announcement dismayed leaders of a group who have campaigned for Essentia to keep the facility downtown.
“The fitness center should be attached to the medical center and not attached to a shopping center,” said Rita Ronchi, a 30-year-old Superior woman who suffered life-changing injuries from a crash at age 17 and uses the lap pool in conjunction with medical appointments at the downtown campus.
“Terribly disheartened, terribly disappointed,” said Judy Anne Dwyer, a longtime fitness center member who lives on Park Point. “They’re doing everything that we have been asking them not to do.”
Mark Hayward, senior vice president of operations for the health system, said 60 employees from the downtown campus, including occupational and physical therapists, will be relocated to the new center when it opens on the first floor of the former Younkers store in the fall.
It was reported on Tuesday that Essentia had purchased the store, which had been closed since late summer, for $3.2 million.
That amount is included in the $15 million that will be spent for the new Essentia Health Fitness & Therapy Center, Hayward said. The expenditure is separate from the $800 million Essentia is spending over the next several years for its Vision Northland redevelopment of the downtown campus.
In an interview, Hayward touted the new location as providing convenience.
“We see the new location as convenient with the easy access to parking; easy access to the facility,” he said. “We took into account convenience as one of the factors that we looked at as we considered where to put the new facility.”
But the new location will be less convenient for many current clients, Dwyer countered, particularly in the winter when snowy roads can make it difficult to get up and down the hill. It also will be less convenient for people who live in the Hillside neighborhoods, many of whom may have limited choices for transportation, she added.
Nearly a thousand people signed a petition opposing any move of the fitness center, Dwyer said.
Both Dwyer and Ronchi cited the pool as a major issue.
Ronchi, who was a star athlete at Northwestern High School before the car crash that nearly took her life, has limited arm and leg movement because of a stroke, a prosthetic right leg and a brain injury.
She described the fitness center’s lap pool as “priceless” in terms of her physical and mental health and said it has helped to keep her out of the hospital.
“They are tearing down my health as well as the building,” Ronchi said.
Hayward said he realized the absence of a lap pool would be a disappointment to some.
“As we considered the new facility and what services to add, we had to make some decisions about how to prioritize our investment. … It’s very costly to add a lap pool; both to add it and maintain it.”
Compared to the existing fitness center, the new facility will have larger locker rooms, a larger exercise area, more exercise equipment, a larger aerobics studio, two dedicated therapy gyms for greater privacy, expanded personal training services and a walking track, Essentia reported in a news release.
It will total 33,000 and 34,000 square feet, Hayward said, compared to 25,000 to 26,000 square feet in the existing fitness and therapy center.
Hayward noted that parking at the mall is free. Essentia charges for use of its parking ramp adjacent to the downtown facility.
The fitness and therapy center will occupy only half of the former store’s first floor, according to the news release. Plans for the remainder of the space will be announced later, it said. In all, the former Younkers store comprises 145,000 square feet.
Although the fitness center is a separate project from Vision Northland, it’s a piece in preparing the way for that work, Hayward said. The existing center is at the location where the centerpiece hospital tower will be built.
The fitness and therapy center was never part of the planning for downtown, he said. “We knew that it would have to move. ... We’ve been considering options for where to place the fitness and therapy center since Vision Northland began.”
The current fitness center has about 3,000 memberships and 4,500 patrons, Hayward said.
Essentia will have a small fitness center at the downtown campus, he said, but it will be only for use by employees.