“Betterment of the community” driving force behind project

Whole community wellness, economic development, student safety and the overall improvement of Wessington Springs are driving forces that members of the Springs Rec Center Task Force cite as reasons for recently launching a fundraising project to build a 13,000-square-foot recreation center that will house a fitness center, gymnasium, kitchen/concessions, restrooms and locker rooms planned to be affixed to the existing gym at Wessington Springs Elementary School.

Since forming after a community meeting held in February 2019, the task force said their primary workload has been made up of researching what components of the facility would best suit all aspects of the community. Members of the committee are made up of: Joyce Krueger, Jean Ferguson, Luke Reindl, Hilary Grohs, Scott Kolousek, Roger Hainy, Jim Scheel, Chris Heim, Chad Thompson and Dr. Pandi Pittman.

“We feel this is a small sample of the community that represents the whole population of the area well,” Reindl said. “The goal of this task force is to raise funds for this facility in order to provide overall betterment of the community.”

Proposed construction consists of precast exterior walls, roof bar joists with steel decking covered with R-40 insulation and a fully adhered roof. Estimates for construction costs are $1.75 million, or $134 per square foot. 

With bleachers that can hold up to 234 people, a maximum capacity of 1,131 people and large roll-up doors to move equipment, tables and chairs in and out with ease, the task force said that the facility would be able to accommodate large scale functions such as community events, concerts, tournaments, weddings and funerals. 

And with planned access points eliminating the ability to enter the elementary school from the rec center during an event, temporary liquor licenses may be obtained for events wanting to serve food and drink. The dual-purpose concession stand/kitchen will be able to accommodate both sports tournaments and school events plus private and community special events. 

As for the fitness center/weight room, the plan includes a separate entrance to just the fitness center, accessible via key FOB during hours that are convenient for community members wanting to work out before or after work. The entire facility will be accessible for people of all abilities, featuring handicap access at each entrance including the fitness center. One of the projected uses for the fitness center and gymnasium is as a destination for retirees to walk, exercise and socialize, even during winter months.  

Wessington Springs Schools Superintendent Dr. Pandi Pittman points to the current restrictions for the existing gymnasium and weight room that have recently been put into place due to student safety and confidentiality issues. Stefan Pluta, Director of SD Office of Homeland Security and Ken Bridger, Risk Management for Associated School Boards of South Dakota conducted reviews at two separate times last fall. 

“They both stood in the lunchroom and saw the access you could have straight from gym to elementary,” Dr. Pittman said. “The problem is, you can lock the doors so you can’t go from the elementary school to the gym, but you can’t look the doors from inside the gym to prevent access to the elementary due to regulations set forth by the Fire Marshall. With access to the elementary, the safety and confidentiality of students can be compromised.”

The task force explained that the addition of the rec center will also improve student athletic programs that suffer from inadequate gym time and inconsistent practice —  bringing a disadvantage to student athletes who are facing up against teams with two gymnasiums that offer regularly scheduled practices.

At February’s community meeting, a host of educators, coaches and community members spoke up about this issue. 

“Most towns we play do have two gyms,” said Boys Varsity Basketball Assistant Coach Will Walker. “With community events kicking us out of the gym and limited space for all of our student athletes, we are often forced to practice at 5 a.m. or later in the evening if we get the gym to practice at all. This sets us back from a competitive standpoint.”

Athletic Director Jason Kolousek pointed out that it’s not only student athletes who are missing out on opportunities due to lack of gymnasium space.

“For our K-12 concert, the music department gets one day of practice on the concert stage before having to tear it down for basketball then set it up again the next day for the performance,” he said. “There is a serious issue with our gym schedule that boils down to our kids not getting opportunities that kids at other schools with two gyms have.”

Kolousek said that the only other schools in the region with one gymnasium are James Valley Christian, which is in the process of building an additional gym, alongside Sanborn Central and Woonsocket, who co-op and utilize the two gyms at both schools together.

At the February meeting that spearheaded the task force’s efforts, Board of Education member Jim Burg reminded attendees that the main job of the school district is to educate kids, but the current, crowded gym schedule is lending to unsustainable schedules that promote inattentive, fatigued students.

“I’m concerned with the education part and the kind of practice schedules we are forced into doing,” Burg said.

Task force members said that in addition to student benefit, economic development and recruitment is another advantage to having a facility such as the Springs Rec Center. 

“Whether it’s teachers, health care professionals or families who want amenities, this rec center will add to the attractiveness of Wessington Springs,” said Hilary Grohs.

Task force members also point out that ever-important sales tax revenue — which helps fund city infrastructure, school budget, local programs, law enforcement and more —  can be generated by an uptick in business due to out of town people spending the day in Wessington Springs during tournaments. This not only helps the business district but also the community as a whole. 

During February’s meeting, Sweet Grass Eatery owner Heather Larson said, “When we are able to host a tournament in town, my day doubles. School activities and events are an important part of the local economy. I buy food from the local grocery store, make cookies with the ingredients then sell them to the school. It all helps, it goes round and round.”

Task force member and longtime resident of Wessington Springs, Joyce Krueger, said that she is volunteering on the task force with high hopes that the dream of building an auxiliary gymnasium/rec center will finally become a reality after more than 30 years of community discussion on the topic.

“It is time to bring this vision for our community to light,” Krueger said. “This will fill a long-time need in this community — let’s build and prepare for our future generations!” 

The task force said that the fundraising campaign is targeting private and corporate donations, along with grants and pledges. Task force members stress that no commitment from the school or the school board has been made, and the fundraising effort will seek out donations and pledges of all sizes. A 501c3 non-profit organization, “Build Springs” is in the process of being formed and will serve as the financial arm of the Springs Rec Center Task Force. 

Details about the maintenance and care of the building are currently being discussed with legalities and nuances being researched. 

As for “Build Springs,” the task force’s goal is to begin a non profit that will help not only fund the Springs Rec Center but also serve as a fundraising arm for many other local projects well into the future.  

“The bottom line of ‘Build Springs’ is to not only build this rec center but to improve our city and encourage people to want to come here — now and in the future,” pointed out task force member Jean Ferguson.