MONTEVIDEO - A hospital-owned health club would help address a public health crisis, make the Montevideo area a better place to live and work, and support itself financially.

Those were among the points made as Brian Lovdahl, CEO of the Chippewa County Montevideo Hospital, outlined a proposal to purchase and convert the former Coborn's supermarket building on state Highway 7 in Montevideo.

Hospital board members are considering an estimated $3,050,000 investment to develop the vacant, 35,000-square-foot facility into a health club with a community meeting room.

A standing-room only crowd gathered April 16 at the EMT Training Center in Montevideo to hear the proposal.

Members of the hospital board have endorsed the proposal. Now it is up to the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners and Montevideo City Council to authorize it or not. They will meet with hospital board members at 7 p.m. Monday in the Montevideo Community Center to possibly make a decision.

The proposal generated support from many as the CEO outlined the project, but also some concern.

Montevideo business owner Kevin Wald urged the elected officials to take time to debate the matter. He is the owner of one of four fitness centers in town that would be affected by the proposal, but he said the fitness center is a very small part of his business ventures.

Wald said his main concern was not finding a private owner for the Coborn's building. The grocery store employed 120 people until being closed about eight months ago.

"I don't think we should take one of the best buildings we have on the highway and hand it over to a government agency," Wald said.

The Coborn's building offers an opportunity for CCMH, according to Lovdahl. It would cost an estimated $5 million to develop a new facility of similar size on an undeveloped site. The Highway 7 site is near the CCMH hospital and clinic, ambulance, and assisted living and nursing care facilities, and the Veterans Administration Clinic, helping create a health care campus.

It's also a very visible location.

"People want a billboard in this community that says 'I want to move here,'" Lovdahl said.

Coborn's has the property listed for $890,000. Under terms of a draft purchase agreement with CCMH, it is willing to sell the property for $750,000, and in turn donate $200,000 to CCMH.

Since being listed, only one other party besides CCMH inquired about the property, according to Lovdahl.

He said it would cost $2.5 million to renovate into a health club, based on an estimate by J & D Construction. The hospital would install $115,000 worth of equipment.

Initial plans envision the facility including fitness equipment, a walking track, a healthy foods kitchen area, and offices for health-related services. It would also hold a meeting room capable of holding 288.

CCMH would move some services now located in the hospital, such as diabetic care, into the health club. Moving services there would make CCMH eligible for an estimated $150,000 a year in lease revenues it is unable to receive from these operations when located in-house.

The hospital can tap its own funds to develop the health club. It has a nearly $18 million deferred maintenance account which can be used only for equipment and buildings, according to Lovdahl. He emphasized that the project would not impact taxpayers. The hospital receives no tax money, operating and retiring its debt entirely on its own revenues.

Lovdahl estimates the health center would have 1,000 memberships. A sliding fee schedule would be developed to make it possible for low-income residents to join, he said.

The facility will help address what he called a health care crisis in the community attributed largely to sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy nutritional practices by many. It will also help CCMH meet a requirement coming in 2021 for health care systems to address overall community health.

"We need to improve the health in our community, we have to be forward thinking," Lovdahl said during the discussions. He pointed out that the hospital and clinic system has been re-filling provider positions it has lost in recent years, and expects to have a full complement of providers on staff by this autumn.

Hospital board chairman Mark Rekow and hospital board member and family practice physician Dr. Lana Dirksen were among those who voiced support for the proposal. They cited the benefits to the health of residents as well as the hospital's ability to make it work.

"Is it ethical to keep the $18 million sitting in an account when you can do good with it?" asked Dirksen.

Superintendent of Montevideo Schools Dr. Luther Heller informed meeting participants that the school and city have held early talks about the possibility of working together to develop a new pool, which could be located adjacent to the Coborn's site. Heller said the school's indoor pool and the city's outdoor pools are approaching end of life.