COLUMBIA — The dean of the MU School of Health Professions told members of the Health Connection gym at a meeting Monday that he'd like to keep the facility open, but money is a major obstacle.
“As dean, I have to put the students first,” Richard Oliver told the crowd of about 100 people gathered in the gym on the Stephens College campus.
Although he talked to the group about possible ways to keep the gym open, he cautioned against too much optimism: “We don’t want to give you false hope.”
Oliver and MU Health Care Vice Chancellor Harold Williamson Jr. answered questions about the Health Connection’s closing, which is scheduled for June 30. The facility, which caters to the elderly, provides a nurse three days a week to monitor the people exercising. A lack of research grants ultimately resulted in the decision to close the gym.
Oliver said the gym's current $405,000 deficit and $100,000 to $110,000 annual deficit cannot be made up with fundraisers or by closing the facility in the afternoons or on Saturdays. But when asked, most people in the room said they would be willing to pay more per month, pay for a year of membership or try to bring a friend to sign up for membership.
One member's suggestion was to put the Health Connection in the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center building once the center moves. But Williamson said the move will not take place for another three or four years, and he said he was not sure it would be a good short- or long-term solution.
A number of comments made by audience members — including Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade — drew applause. A fan of the facility, Wade has visited the Health Connection three times a week for a couple of years because of an arthritic knee. He said the way programs are funded should match the university's priorities, and that was not the case with the decision to close the Health Connection.
"The university has three missions: research, teaching and public service. The Health Connection is an innovative integration of all three," he said after the meeting. "That's what should be supported and advanced."
Although Oliver and Williamson set a cautionary tone at the meeting, Debbie Kaplan, director of the Health Connection, said she was optimistic because there is an open dialogue among members, the dean and the vice chancellor.
Member Sue Fenton, 79, also was upbeat: “We got a little hope,” she said.
Oliver decided to create a committee of members of the Health Connection to explore ways to keep the facility open. Made up of five to 10 gym members and Meichele Foster, a development officer with the MU School of Health Professions, the committee will plan a schedule of meetings to discuss alternatives to closing the facility. Oliver said the committee would have 30 days to discuss, and he would make the final decision by May 15.
Members of the Health Connection range in age from 20 to more than 90 years old, with most members in their 60s, 70s and 80s. According to a graph given out at the meeting, between 165 and 170 of the 322 members are classified as “high risk” in terms of needing assistance or monitoring while exercising.