PAYNESVILLE — Paynesville Area Schools have taken a giant step forward for students and for the community’s health with the opening this fall of a $16 million school improvement project.

The largest part of the project is the Paynesville Area Community Center attached to the north side of the secondary school. Career and technical classrooms were remodeled, and indoor air quality work at the elementary school is ongoing.

Community centers connected to schools are found in all sizes of school districts in Minnesota. New London-Spicer High School has had an attached fitness center for more than a decade. Redwood Falls has a civic center/community center connected to Redwood Valley High School.

The Paynesville Area Community Center had a grand opening in August, two years after voters approved the project. Its field house has room for four full basketball or volleyball courts, a walking track around the perimeter and a group exercise room. Many features are available 24 hours a day for members.

Matt Dickhausen, community education director for Paynesville Area School District, stands in the weight room of the community fitness center connected to Paynesville Area Secondary School. Dickhausen worked for years to develop the fitness center funded by a community referendum.
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune
Matt Dickhausen, community education director for Paynesville Area School District, stands in the weight room of the community fitness center connected to Paynesville Area Secondary School. Dickhausen worked for years to develop the fitness center funded by a community referendum. Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune
“We’re all about keeping our community active and fit,” said Matt Dickhausen, Community Education director, as he conducted a tour of the new facility. The center has about 600 memberships.

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A large wrestling room/multipurpose room has replaced the school’s old wrestling room, which is now a student training center. Having the student center leaves the fitness center for community members.

The “fun part” of the new wrestling room is the black lights mounted near the ceiling, Dickhausen said — “We just had black-light Nerf wars with kids, and we can do black-light dodgeball.”

The center offers party rentals featuring open gym time and blacklight play.

It’s a healthy option for a party, too, Dickhausen said.

“When you’re playing dodgeball or Nerf, you don’t know you’re exercising or working out, but you’re just sweating,” he said. “The kids are having so much fun.”

The group exercise room has a system that allows members to choose from hundreds of exercise videos if they don’t have an in-person instructor.

Dickhausen said the community fitness center first opened in 2001. Eventually, “we just needed more space,” he said. “We were so short on community gym space for our adult rec things; and youth sports had to go pretty late in the day to get practices in.”

Dickhausen has been with the school district since 1999, and he’s worked on ideas for a new center for longer than a decade. He smiled and said, “I actually learned (Computer-Aided Design) so I could draw up different iterations.”

Center designed to meet differing needs, uses

The fitness center was busy in the early evening recently.

The Rev. Bob Kandels of Paynesville continues his workout in the fitness center at the recently expanded Paynesville Area Community Center. Kandels said staying fit has helped him enjoy his preferred outdoor sports into his 50s. 
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune
The Rev. Bob Kandels of Paynesville continues his workout in the fitness center at the recently expanded Paynesville Area Community Center. Kandels said staying fit has helped him enjoy his preferred outdoor sports into his 50s. Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune
The Rev. Bob Kandels, 56, pastor at Paynesville’s Grace United Methodist Church, was in the middle of his workout, which he does two to three times a week.

Kandels said he and his wife joined the Community Center when they moved to town six years ago. “There’s relationships here; it’s where people go,” he said. The new center “is the best thing that’s happened.”

The gym was closed for several months in the early days of the pandemic. While he understood that it was necessary, “when we opened, I was so excited, because the community was back,” Kandels said.

Andre Haines and Jacob Christenson, both 19 and 2020 Paynesville graduates, were working out nearby. Haines was lifting weights while Christenson spotted.

Andre Haines of Paynesville lifts in the weight room of the recently expanded Paynesville Area Community Center, while Jacob Christenson of Paynesville acts as his spotter.
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune
Andre Haines of Paynesville lifts in the weight room of the recently expanded Paynesville Area Community Center, while Jacob Christenson of Paynesville acts as his spotter. Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune
“I grew up coming here,” Haines said. “I can’t get away from it.”

He had gained weight after a high school football injury, he said, and coming back to the fitness center helped him lose 50 pounds last summer.

The men said they felt the Community Center definitely benefits people in the area.

“If you can take an hour out of your day and improve yourself, your well-being and your mindset, that’s way more worth it than sitting at home and doing nothing,” Christenson said.

Operators of other centers agree with Dickhausen that a fitness center is good for a town.

“Our fitness center has been a great benefit to our community,” said Megan Swanson, communications director for New London-Spicer School District. “Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of facilities in the area.”

The center has 24-hour access. “Everybody’s schedule is so different so it’s been really nice,” Swanson said.

The Community Education Department offers a variety of classes for all ages through the fitness center, she said.

When planning for the Redwood Area Community Center in Redwood Falls began in the late 1990s, connecting it to the school “was the best decision they could have made,” said Ross Nachreiner, the city’s Parks and Recreation director. “I wouldn’t do it any differently.”

The center opened in 2000. It includes a field house and an ice arena along with a fitness center. There’s room for seven full basketball or volleyball courts. In 2016, a senior center and a fitness studio for exercise classes were added.

The school and city have a joint powers agreement, and each is allowed to use the other’s facilities at no cost.

The field house is used by physical education classes and by the district’s athletes. There’s an effort to keep some areas open for the public, he said.

Randy Ourada, the school district’s Community Education director, said having the Community Center available has been a tremendous experience.

“It’s definitely been a huge benefit where our city and school work together very closely,” he said.