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New health and recreation center opens at SKC

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PABLO, Mont. - The Joe McDonald Health and Athletic Center at Salish Kootenai College was officially dedicated recently when Little Bighorn College visited and played two games against the home team, the SKC Bison. The new building is a huge step forward for SKC, which didn't have its own gym before; teams had to play instead at the local secondary school or in a neighboring town. Now the college has a complete fitness center with two full-sized regulation college floors with a dividing curtain, each with its own separate scoreboard and clock so that two games can take place at the same time.

Joe McDonald, for whom the facility is named, is president of Salish Kootenai College. McDonald has served in this role since 1978, but he started out in coaching.

''The first 20 years of my career I was a coach. I went to a small college, Western Montana College, and played football, basketball and baseball. My first coaching job was a little school that didn't have football and I wanted to be a football coach, but I started coaching basketball and my success was there. Being an old ex-coach, you'd think I'd have built a gym [here] first and the college last,'' he laughed. ''But we got everything else. We have a good science facility, a liberal arts facility, nursing program and computer information center. All those learning resources came first and now we have the gymnasium.''

The new building contains two gymnasiums, a fitness center and a walking track above. It also has a kitchen.

''We hope to do some healthy food cooking - demonstration cooking with healthy foods,'' McDonald explained. ''The dining room can also be used as a dance floor and a lot of different activities can take place there.''

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The gymnasium portion has a seating capacity of 2,300. It will also serve functions other than basketball games. Plans are already under way to hold graduation ceremonies here next spring along with a pow wow and meal right after graduation.

The total cost with architect fees will be about $6.5 million. Grants were obtained from Urban and Development Recreational Facilities, Title III of the Higher Education Act, another $450,000 from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and $200,000 from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. The balance was made up by the school's foundation.

There is also a new small auditorium under way adjacent to the Health and Recreation Center which will seat 220 people. It will open later this winter. ''It will be state of the art,'' McDonald explained. ''We can have speakers, small plays and other functions.''

Men's basketball coach Zachary Camel talked about the two games with Little Bighorn College. ''We didn't play with a lot of urgency the first night. Maybe it was too much, the new gym, but we lost 120 to 110. Then we came back and played that same team the next night. We played a little better and won 134 to 110. As I told them, everything's a first - our first 3, our first dunk, our first steal. We're just waiting to get our first sell-out. We'd like to get 2,500 people in here and see what it looks like then.

''The gym was great! It's nice. The floor is perfect. It's jumpy and the rims are soft. The lighting is perfect. We had a crowd in there and it was really nice. We had about 600 people each night. Everyone is just amazed at how nice it is. The teams we've had in [another team had played here the week before the official grand opening] have said it's the nicest gym they've played in.''