Fort Lewis College officials and community leaders broke ground Friday at the future site of the college’s much-needed Health Sciences Center.
The Health Sciences Department is the largest and fastest-growing department on campus, but space in Whalen Gymnasium and Skyhawk Hall is inadequate, staff members and students have said. The new $33 million center, after a long search for funding, will provide state-of-the-art facilities for students.
Standing behind a lectern facing livestreaming cameras, college President Tom Stritikus said the project was a testament to the school’s community.
“We have amazing students who are literally shaping not only the moment, but the future,” Stritikus said. “This was about creating a future, and we did it together, and we did it in a very, very difficult time.”
Health sciences offers programs in health and well-being, nutrition science, public health, exercise science, physical therapy and sports administration. With about 400 students in the Health Sciences Department, it is the largest on campus.
It is key to the college as it strives to be the regional center for public health education, health science and high-altitude study and training in athletics.
But space has long been an issue for faculty and students in the department.
When the department faculty first arrived in 1970, their offices were in trailers, said Melissa Knight-Maloney, associate dean and professor of health sciences.
When the Whalen Gymnasium was built, faculty got offices, but not classrooms or laboratories. Students learned in cramped facilities. Nutrition students cooked on mobile carts, and some instructional activities take place in hallways. One heavily used room, a converted dance studio, has functioned as a lab, classroom and storage area.
“We’re good at having creative space,” Knight-Maloney said. “This state-of-the-art facility is a tribute to all of the faculty and staff who have built our programs through the 1970s until today.”
In the new 42,000-square-foot Health Sciences Center, classes and research will be conducted in a human-body research lab for biomechanics analysis, a teaching kitchen for nutrition science and a public health lab for microbiology studies, according to an FLC news release.
The Durango Performance Center currently operates in Skyhawk Hall, and additional space would allow it to tap into the growing market of fitness assessments for nonprofessional athletes and high-altitude training camps.
For FLC senior Ally Gee, studying public health through the department will allow her to offer culturally competent care to her community in the Navajo Nation in the future.
“Having a Health Sciences Center, gives other Black and Indigenous students of color the opportunity to become the health professionals we didn’t have growing up,” said Gee, who is Diné.
Funding the project has been a challenge.
For several years, the project was envisioned as a $57.5 million two-phase plan to renovate Whalen Gym; however, the Colorado Legislature did not approve funding support for that project. The school revised its plan with a stronger focus on academic space, and Gov. Jared Polis said it was a No. 1 priority for the 2020-21 budget.
State funding was shaky as the state cut spending amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, in July, Polis signed a bill that committed funding for the project.
The bill creates a lease agreement to provide about $29.6 million in state funding for the project. FLC is required to contribute 10%, about $3.3 million.
After years of fundraising efforts, FLC received a $2 million pledge from the Schlessman Family Foundation, which completed the required funding match.
“This is an incredible asset to the city of Durango ... especially in a time of urgent need for trained health care professionals,” said Durango Mayor Dean Brookie. “My only hope is that we can keep a lot of the talent that is produced by Fort Lewis College in our community.”