Can Rushville point the way?

Planning ongoing for proposed Elmwood Wellness Center

Weekly Post Staff Writer

RUSHVILLE – Tim Ward smiled as he stopped to watch elderly couples playing pickleball on two shiny new courts, while walkers traversed an elevated walking path above the gym floor.

“That’s the beauty of this place,” Ward said last week, gesturing to the gym that sits in the center of the new Rushville Fitness & Community Center. “We’d never be able to do anything like this in Rushville without this place.”

Ward was one of the driving forces behind construction and planning of the 30,000-square-foot facility that was built during the COVID-19 pandemic and opened last November.

Despite the difficulties presented by COVID restrictions, the center has averaged nearly 5,000 visits per month, according to Ward, and has enrolled 753 members. Those are impressive numbers in a city with a population of 2,746 and a county (Schuyler) with a total population of under 7,000.

Those successes and the cost of the Rushville center caught the eye of a committee organized by the Elmwood Community Foundation to assess the likelihood of donations for a similar facility on the north edge of Elmwood.

Committee members recently toured the Rushville facility and came away impressed – both with the amenities and with the $6.6 million price tag for this Morton Buildings, Inc. structure.

While estimates for a comparable center in Elmwood are inexact, ECF board member Dick Taylor believes the proposed Elmwood Wellness Center could be built for $9.83 million – $2.2 million below original estimates.

The timing of that news is good, since fundraising consultant John Biggins of the American City Bureau is preparing to survey potential donors in the next few months. Biggins has worked closely with hundreds of other YMCA projects to gauge the feasibility of fundraising efforts. His work here will go a long way toward determining whether a wellness center is doable or if the plan needs to be scaled down or possibly scrapped.

With COVID restrictions lifting, meetings are also planned with leaders of communities around Elmwood, since support from surrounding areas is deemed critical to success of the wellness center.

“None of us can do this alone,” Taylor said. “But together we certainly can.”

The Elmwood Community Foundation began talks about a fitness center in 2015 after surveying community interest in such a building. Based on that feedback and on tours of various community centers across Illinois, the ECF has drawn up a plan for a facility with a three-lane pool, a gym with an elevated walking track and a weight room. The center would be connected to the existing Graham Medical Group clinic.

Programming and management would be handled by the Greater Peoria Family YMCA, whose current President and CEO Andy Thornton has been very involved in planning efforts.

“I think the community foundation should be commended for the time and energy they have put into this process,” said Thornton, whose parents and brother live in Elmwood. “I know some people would like to see it done sooner, but it takes time to do this right. And they are doing it right.”

The basic floorplan in Elmwood mirrors what was built in Rushville, with the exception of larger locker rooms, something Ward wishes he could do over. Taylor said solar panels placed on the roof of the Rushville facility are not currently a part of the Elmwood plan.

About 50.5 percent of the higher price tag in Elmwood is based on increased material costs, with another half going toward items such as purchasing land, connecting to the Graham facility, installing a backup generator, building a possible turn lane off Illinois Route 78 and increasing the size of the parking lot and pool lockerroom.

Taylor said seeing Rushville’s building is a benefit to the ECF.

“It’s fortunate for us they went ahead and finished theirs before we did our [donor] survey,” Taylor said. “It gave us a chance to see a facility that we think would be very suitable for our needs here. It’s like looking at a house. You can look at a drawing, but wouldn’t you rather go look at one that’s just like it and see how big the rooms are?”

There are also significant differences between the projects. For one, the city of Rushville donated 2.8 acres on which the fitness center was built. Rushville also manages its center without help from the YMCA.

The biggest difference, though, is that Rushville’s facility was funded entirely by an anonymous donor – a deep-pocketed philanthropist who has also paid for the Rushville city pool, tennis courts and a batting cage at the fitness center, various emergency vehicles for the community and a new performing arts center at Rushville-Industry High School.

After six years of planning and touring fitness centers across Missouri and Illinois, Ward said that donation obviously made finishing the project much easier.

At one point, Ward said Rushville’s organizers had considered refurbishing a former John Deere dealership. They had also pondered combining a recreation center with city hall and the library. None of those ideas materialized.

At another point, organizers in Rushville concluded that a pool might be unrealistic due to the cost of construction and maintenance. But the anonymous donor told them to go ahead with a three-lane pool that ranges from 3-5 feet deep – a decision Ward said has been critical in providing a place for therapy, laps and even birthday parties.

“It’s fulfilled all the wishes we ever had for our community,” Ward said.

“I’m surprised how many communities are looking a building some kind of fitness center,” said Ward, who has also hosted visitors from Mount Carroll and Carthage. “Everybody wants to do something, you just have to have the funds to get it done.”

All of that is fodder for the ECF while awaiting results from its donor survey. If the feedback is positive, Thornton envisions starting a year-long capital campaign to raise the funds.

Taylor is optimistic about that happening.

“If the people in this area that we intend to serve could see Rushville and talk to Tim Ward, I think there would be a very good chance [of the money being raised],” Taylor said. “It is that impressive.”