Fort Lewis College’s proposed $32.8 million Health Sciences Center, intended to accommodate hundreds of students in popular majors, has caught the attention of Gov. Jared Polis.
The governor ranked the Health Science Center as the No. 1 college construction priority in his 2020-21 budget proposal. While the ranking is not a guarantee, it bodes well for the school’s $26.5 million request.
“I think that positions us really well for the future,” said Steve Schwartz, vice president for finance and administration.
The project, which would be adjacent to Whalen Gymnasium, was ranked highly last year but ultimately did not receive funding. However, it is now prioritized above projects proposed by the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, and that sends a positive message, Schwartz said.
“The governor clearly understands the needs of rural Colorado, and we’re grateful he appreciates the role the Health Sciences Center will play in promoting health and wellness in our region,” said FLC President Tom Stritikus in a statement.
To better pitch the project to the state, FLC refined plans for the Health Sciences Center to focus on academics.
For several years, the project was envisioned as a $57.5 million two-phase plan to renovate Whalen Gym, add academic space, improve athletic facilities, and change the name to Whalen Academic and Athletic Complex.
Under the new plan, the 42,000-square-foot Health Sciences Center will still be an addition to Whalen, but almost all of the new space will be dedicated to academics to accommodate students majoring in health sciences, FLC officials said.
“They deserve a new building,” said Provost Cheryl Nixon.
The limited space currently available for health sciences means students in nutrition classes must cook on mobile carts and some instructional activities take place in hallways, faculty and staff said.
“It’s limiting the ability to grow our curriculum,” said Melissa Knight-Maloney, Health Sciences Department chairwoman.
If the Legislature approves funding for the center, FLC could break ground in the spring and the center could be finished by fall 2022, said Mark Jastorff, FLC vice president for advancement.
FLC would have to raise $2.9 million for the project, said spokeswoman Lauren Savage. The school already has $3.3 million to cover design costs, she said.
The new building would take pressure off two classrooms and two labs in Skyhawk Hall, where most exercise science classes take place, students said.
Exercise physiology senior Cole Shea said he was stunned by the lack of facilities when he arrived as a transfer student.
“It was a shock for me, coming from another college; it was like: ‘Where is the rest of everything?’” he said.
One heavily used room, a converted dance studio, functions as a lab, classroom and storage area.
“Not having everything crammed into one room is really something to look forward to,” said Anna Wandel, an exercise physiology junior.
Wandel and Shea are among about 400 students in the Health Sciences Department, making it the largest on campus. The department includes four majors: exercise physiology, public health, sports administration, and exercise and health promotion. Next year, the college plans to add nutrition and health sciences majors.
The interest in health science majors correlates with a demand for well-trained health professionals in Durango, Nixon said, so it makes sense for the college and state to invest in a new building.
“We want it to be really cutting-edge, emphasizing where health sciences is moving as a real growth area in Durango and in the region,” she said.
Construction would include a few features that benefit athletics, including a new women’s locker room, an adaptive exercise lab that could be used as an axillary gym in off-hours and improved entryway to Whalen Gym’s west side that would feature better lighting and more signs, said Brandon Leimbach, FLC’s athletic director.
“You wouldn’t know if that’s a library or a biology hall,” he said. “It just doesn’t scream athletics, so we are really going to rebrand that west entrance.”
The new health sciences portion of the building would have a separate entrance, with study space facing the campus’ clock tower intended to draw students to the building and unite it with the rest of campus, Nixon said.
Skyhawk Hall, south of the school’s stadium, is removed from other activities on campus, and not many students are aware of it, said Dennison Blackhair, an exercise physiology senior.
“I feel like we’re excommunicated from campus,” he said.