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The Montana Board of Regents has given the green light to Montana State University’s plan to build a new Student Wellness Center costing up to $60 million.

The regents, meeting online Wednesday, voted unanimously to approve designing and constructing the project, partly to replace three old gyms and a swimming pool that were damaged or destroyed by record snows in 2019.

The project goes beyond that and will include building larger, modern spaces to replace aging and cramped buildings that now house the student health and mental health counseling centers. The new construction, more than 150,000 square feet, will expand the current Student Fitness Center on Grant Street.

MSU students voted overwhelmingly last month in favor of a $58 per semester student fee to help pay for the project, with 66% voting yes.

“We had a better turnout and show of support that I could have dreamed of,” said Taylor Blossom, last year’s student body president. Mike Vasquez, the newly elected student president, also spoke in favor of the project, saying students didn’t just want the old gyms to be patched up but to have the buildings improved.

Insurance will provide $36 million, said Terry Leist, MSU vice president for administration and finances. Existing student building fees will provide $2 million, he said. And the new $58 fee will raise $22 million to pay off the construction bonds.

MSU President Waded Cruzado said she was so impressed that students voted to endorse the fee, even though the campus was closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our students came to the plate and did what was right,” Cruzado said, both for themselves and for future students. “It’s a great example of how our students continue to provide inspiration – what to do when life gives you lemons.”

In March 2019 heavy snowfall collapsed the flat roofs on two 1970s-era gyms and damaged the building housing the campus pool.

When MSU asked students what should replace the old student-funded structures, they asked for things like a better climbing wall. But students also pushed for replacing the 1957 student health center and expanding mental health services, which have outgrown their small offices.

“We found students really identified mental health as a top need for the new center,” said Betsy Asserson, director of counseling and psychological services.

Asserson said student demand for mental health services has grown and her office expects that will continue as students deal with distance learning required by the virus and the resulting isolation and loneliness.

The new center will include space for the medical clinic, dental clinic, X-rays, clinical lab and pharmacy. It will have a new pool that provides handicapped access, courts for several sports, fitness studios, study areas and a bigger climbing wall.

Though students voted to endorse the fee, the final decision was up to the regents’ vote.

Blossom said the new center wouldn’t be good for just a small group that’s into fitness. “I really see the benefit to the entire student body and the future of the campus,” he said.

Construction is expected to take two to three years after the design is completed.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.