The only community center like it in Montana: Poplar constructs $23 million wellness facility

By: - August 29, 2021 9:01 am

A new community wellness center which is being constructed in Poplar, Montana by the Fort Peck Tribes. The center sits along U.S. Highway 2 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick for the Daily Montanan).

POPLAR – The idea for a new $23 million recreation, education, wellness and community center for the headquarters of the Fort Peck Tribes came from an unexpected place.

Put bluntly, the youth of this reservation community in Eastern Montana were tired of watching their family members die. They told the tribal council there must a be different way.

Now, 20 years and more than $23 million later, a community wellness center that will have indoor swimming pools, areas for education, a teaching kitchen, rooms for occupation and physical therapy, a nearly 5,000 square feet gymnasium, basketball court and walking track are nearing a finish for an opening toward the end of 2021.

When it opens, it won’t only be a model for how tribal communities can fund larger community projects using Montana’s tax-credit incentive program, but it remains an example of how Poplar persevered during the course of years as it wrestled with the still-unchanged fact that tribal members die a full 20 years earlier – or one generation – before their counterparts living elsewhere in the state.

What will become the gymnasium for the integrated health center in Poplar is the warehouse and staging area during construction in this August 2021 photo (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick for the Daily Montanan).

Tribal leaders told the Daily Montanan it’s not enough just to preach the gospel of lifestyle changes, there has to be the opportunity, and the new wellness center will give residents options for physical, mental, spiritual and social health.

Maureen Dionne, planner for the Fort Peck Tribes, knows what this 50,000 square-foot space will mean to the reservation, the tribes and the community. She’s lost five brothers, mostly due to alcoholism or heart disease before the age of 50.

“I try to help my nieces and nephews and show them the right way, but if I don’t take care of myself, too, who will be there for them?” she wondered aloud while touring the building.

The community and wellness center doesn’t guarantee success or healthier living for the Poplar community, but it provides an opportunity. As it stands, distance, cost, access and education all act as barriers to healthy lifestyles, said Kenneth Smoker, Jr., director of the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Program. The center and its programming will help remove those obstacles.

And it gives the youth of the community a place to go and healthy alternatives for this community, which has been devastated by drugs, alcohol, suicide and disease, and remains among the poorest in the United States. One in four people in the county is living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Prevention not intervention

Smoker said the problem is generational – from the trauma that many tribal members endure in childhood to the ongoing loss.

On a recent Monday, Smoker sat at his computer and pulled up the latest death certificates from his town and read them off. At first, they sounded like bingo or lottery numbers.

“47, 35, 30,” Smoker said.

Those are the ages of the most recent dead.

“People experience it as a way of life, and many people die in a tragic way. And then in a following week or two, there’s another,” Smoker said. “It’s sad that we just kind of have accepted it, but the youth, they don’t.”

And it was youth of the tribe who spoke repeatedly and consistently, even when tribal leaders didn’t.

Fort Peck Tribal Planner Maureen Dionne looks at the progress from a second-floor balcony area in the community wellness center in Poplar, Montana on Aug. 23, 2021 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick for the Daily Montanan).

Smoker and Dionne, along with Jackie Weeks, give plenty of credit to tribal Chairman Floyd Azure, who has helped shepherd the project through. Without him, they said, the wellness center would have likely died several other times.

All seem to agree that the uncertain and sometimes unstable tribal politics makes the wellness center even more of an accomplishment. Every two years, the tribal council, the governing board of the indigenous nation, turns over. In its 20-year sojourn to becoming a reality, different tribal councils have vacillated, making the center a priority to dismissing it altogether.

“It’s been dead three different times,” Connie Thompson said. She was a member of the small committee that shepherded the project through to completion.

It took a development committee, commitments from the tribal government, grants from the Department of Energy, along with new-markets tax credits, to get the project literally off the ground.

The new building is a solar-paneled, brick and steel building that sits on the north side of U.S. Highway 2, a famous stretch of mostly two-lane highway that crosses Montana’s Hi-Line, through mountains, prairies and rivers. Poplar sits just about 50 miles south of the United States-Canadian border, and just a little more than that to North Dakota.

The uncertain rollercoaster of tribal politics wasn’t the full extent of the opposition. Tribal members scoffed at it, too.

“Everyone thought it was just a fitness center or gym,” Dionne said. “But this is wholistic wellness that people are going to receive.”

Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure surveys the construction of a new $23 million community wellness center in Poplar, Montana on Aug. 23, 2021 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick for the Daily Montanan).

That means there are areas for public health officials and practitioners to provide therapy – from the telemedicine capabilities to the therapy swimming pool. Cardiac rehabilitation can take place in Poplar, rather than Wolf Point, 18 miles away, or Glasgow, which is more than 70.

“There’s so much grief and loss here,” Dionne said. “And for me, it’s about the approach.”

The center gives residents the option to do something different, to make a change. It’s also state-of-the-art. It may be the only building in Montana currently being built with so many options, most of which will be free to community members.

“The younger generation is excited, and they’re fighting for it,” said Christine Bauer. “They want to see cleaner communities.”

The youth in the community were so adamant and fought so hard that they sat in the tribal council meeting as a sign of support and solidarity until the measure passed. And those same students have been instrumental in the design of the facility, down to the basketball courts and pools.

“It’s important for the students to take ownership and let them have ownership. They did this. This is theirs,” Smoker said.

Azure doesn’t flinch when he talks about drugs, health problems or other issues on the reservation. A spate of youth suicides in 2010 led tribal leaders to declare a crisis on the reservation then.

“We need something. We have a lot of problems on this reservation, including suicide, drugs and alcohol,” he said. “We want a place where they can go to live healthier.”

While peer pressure can be a bad thing, the tribal chairman said it can also work for them.

“A lot of it is peer pressure,” Azure said. “We hope that some students come over to do things here and bring a lot of their friends with them. This is a safe and healthy environment.”

It’s also one that seeks to bridge the generations. In addition to several swimming pools, it has a sauna that can fit nearly two dozen people, and the elder lodge, an expanded room for older adults, is right next to the day care.

Smoker remembers the first time the issue was broached, nearly 20 years ago.

“Our children were crying and they were tired of seeing their relatives die,” Smoker said. “And we said, ‘So what do you want us to do?’ And, then they said, ‘We’ll tell you what we want,’ and this was it.”

That’s helped Smoker keep going, growing from a patch of land and concrete pad to become what is likely going to be the largest building in the community, complete with a 30-foot sign.

“It’s a mindset. The mindset here has to be changed,” Weeks said.

Smoker has another ambitious goal – 40 certified nurses assistants that will be trained through the high school program. Those will provide the trainers and educators for the center. Right now, five different activity coordinators will help with the programming, from riding horses to riding bikes.

“You have to meet people where they are, and do what they can do,” Bauer said.

That could be pilates, yoga or even learning how to cook with traditional foods, like turnips or berries for a more healthy diet. And if the physical benefits are good, so, too, are the social ones, Azure said.

“Right now, we can’t go somewhere and socialize. We don’t have a theater. We don’t have a bowling alley or a pool,” Azure said.

Crews work on a large swimming pool in the new Fort Peck community wellness center on Aug. 23, 2021 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick for the Daily Montanan).

Hopefully, residents come into the center and leave feeling better.

“Maybe they don’t lose weight, but they’ll feel better about themselves and their community,” Bauer said.

As tribal officials and some students toured the facility recently, walls, steel and glass had begun to give the building shape and character. Several “rez dogs” roamed the halls, seemingly just as much at home as the crews in orange vests and hard hats. Work on the project, despite COVID-19, construction material and labor shortage, is still on schedule for the end of 2021.

“This just blows me away,” said Azure walking through it.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.