60,000 square feet of fun

Several individuals involved with the planning of USD's new wellness center quietly sunk shovels into a small mound of dirt Monday morning to symbolize the beginning of construction for the university's new 61,000 square foot wellness center.


The roar of powerful backhoes echoed in the background, making it apparent that the early stages of preparing the building site, located north of the Warren M. Lee Center for the Fine Arts, for the construction process is well under way.


"This state of the art facility will transform the way our students, staff, faculty and community view fitness," said USD Athletics Director Joel Nielsen, who also served as co-chair of the Wellness Center Planning Committee. Construction is planned to continue year-round, with the building being ready for students in 2011.


The Wellness Center Planning Committee was formed two years ago by USD President James Abbott to determine the best way to offer student fitness on the campus.


"A student survey showed that the current setup in the DakotaDome was unsatisfactory to students," Nielsen said during a short program held before the groundbreaking ceremony. "I'm confident the committee did their job in creating a wellness plan for the campus and thus producing the building that's being constructed today. This building will be able to handle the expected usage patterns, it will offer convenient times, and it will be a beautiful building, serving as a showpiece for everyone entering from the north end of the campus.


When completed, the building will offer state-of-the-art workout equipment, a multi-story climbing wall and a Multipurpose Activity Court. It will also have a large open workout space with treadmills, exercise bicycles, elliptical machines, stretching mats and a weight room space with free weights and strength training equipment.


In addition to two racquetball courts, the facility will include multiple recreation courts for basketball and volleyball; group fitness studios for aerobics, Pilates and yoga; a three-lane walking/jogging track, locker rooms, and offices for the wellness center staff.


"There will be over 60,000 square feet of fun," Nielsen said.


Recruitment of new students and retention of those already attending USD are two critical goals of the institution, he added, and the new building will assist with both.


Nielsen praised Abbott's vision for helping to make the new facility a reality. It's a notion the USD president brushed aside, pointing out that students are responsible for this latest addition to campus.


"To be perfectly honest, my vision had very little to do with this," Abbott said. "The students had all of the vision — each and every ounce of it."


Abbott said that he had proposed remodeling the 17,000-square-foot Continuing Education Center, a campus building without any load-bearing walls in its interior, and transform it into a student fitness center.


"Our students, after politely listening to what I had to say, said 'Absolutely not. This is not what we want. We want a state-of-the-art building that allows us to do everything that we want to do,' and thanks to the students, that's exactly what we're going to have," he said.


This groundbreaking, Abbott added, is symbolic of efforts to make the University of South Dakota an extraordinary university, both academically and in terms of facilities.


"The wellness center is a major addition, but its function is just the same as is every building on this campus – to serve our students," he said. "We're looking forward to the completion of this facility, and thanks to the diligence of a committed campus community, especially our students, those very same students will have their own state-of-the-art fitness center."


Ryan Budmayr, former Student Government Association (SGA) president, helped communicate student input about the new building to the South Dakota Board of Regents last year. He toured wellness facilities at peer institutions to see firsthand what features were popular.


Budmayr noted that USD students will still be able to enjoy the many amenities of the DakotaDome, including the university's Division I athletic contests, with the addition of the new wellness facility that will offer more hours, more space and double the equipment that is currently offered in the DakotaDome's fitness facilities.


"The one thing that I'm most proud of is the role that students played in making this wellness center not only a reality, but also in helping to create what it will become," he said. "Students either came up with the ideas, or were involved in the decision-making process.


"Not only did they take part in the physical planning of the facility, they also played a crucial role in the campaign to inform students by creating flyers and opening up student government meetings," Budmayr said. "We also had an incredible student turnout at our meeting in Madison during finals week last winter. We helped to convince the Board of Regents that this was a truly a project that students could not live without."


The $15 million center is almost entirely being paid for by students through a $9.75 per credit hour hike in tuition.


The city of Vermillion and the university have also entered into a membership use agreement for the center, calling for the city to contribute $340,000 over five years beginning in the fall of 2010.


RDG Planning and Design, the architectural firm that designed the center, left room for growth in the structure's plans.


"They designed it with a footprint of about a 125,000 square feet," Nielsen said. "What we're building today is 61,000, roughly."


The design allows for the future construction of additional gymnasiums and wellness facilities. It will be a facility that can grow in the future to meet the needs of both the university and the Vermillion community.


Students will pay approximately 97 percent of the new building's construction costs, and will be given free access to the facility.


"That will not prohibit faculty and staff and community members from enjoying it. A lot of the same features that students enjoy are also enjoyed by others in the community," Nielsen said. "Students will use it for free, and every other user group will have to pay to have access to the center."


It is this predicted community use of the facility that prompted designers to include the ability to expand the building as the need for more space arises.

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