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Forest County Potawatomi Community opens community center in response to opioid epidemic

The Forest County Potawatomi Community Center opened Friday. It's the largest construction project in Forest County history.
Erin Gottsacker
The Forest County Potawatomi Community Center opened Friday. It's the largest construction project in Forest County history.

The community center opened to the public Friday. The $60 million project has been in the works since May 2019. Members of the tribal council hope the center will mitigate the opioid epidemic in the area.

When the opioid epidemic hit Wisconsin, the number of people going to the hospital because of opioids skyrocketed.

Wisconsin counties on average saw a 74 percent increase in opioid related hospital discharges between 2010 and 2016.

In Forest County, the rate was five times higher.

More than 400 percent more people needed medical treatment because of opioids, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

It was a problem that touched the lives of many, including tribal council chairman Ned Daniels.

Ned Dani
Erin Gottsacker
Forest County Potawatomi Community Chairman Ned Daniels

“I am living the life of an opioid affected family,” Daniels says. “My daughter and the fathers to my grandchildren don’t exist. One is still an addict. The other one, I don’t know where they are.”

Daniels now cares for his two grandsons.

He doesn’t want the same thing to happen to them, so he and the tribal council decided to tackle the epidemic.

They called on experts from across the tribe to brainstorm ways to combat opioid addiction, and ultimately decided to build a community and recreation center.

“This building was one of the biggest things that we could do to combat opioids,” Daniels says. “While we were building this, we could do other things through family services, through our medical centers, our alcohol and drug facilities. We started attacking it, but all the time, we couldn’t wait for this building to be done.”

The purpose of the new community center is to instill healthy values in the entire community, but it is especially designed to give young people a space to spend time and stay busy – away from drugs.

To make sure the building achieved this purpose and was appealing to kids, the entire community helped plan its design, including kids themselves.

“We were like, ‘okay kids, this your building, if you were to design this what would you put in?’ Boy, they just started spitting out all this stuff and we wrote it all down,” Daniels describes. “They wanted a swimming pool, and we could make it with a slide and all this stuff.”

These suggestions were incorporated into the facility’s final design, which took just over two years and $60 million to construct.

It officially opened to the public Friday. Tribal members can access the center for free, but memberships are available for other community members.

Inside of the Forest County Potawatomi Community's new community center
Forest County Potawatomi Community
Inside of the Forest County Potawatomi Community's new community center

The center features three full-length basketball courts, a 20,000 square-foot field house, a fitness center, a rock-climbing wall and a pool with a waterslide.

But the facility isn’t just for sports.

It also includes a Fab Lab, wood shop, teaching kitchen and child-care center.

“It was important to offer something for everybody from all ages,” says Brian Tupper, the center’s director.

Elements of Potwatomi culture are incorporated throughout the building from the floors of the gymnasium, which came from the Menominee Reservation, to the building’s exterior shape – an eagle.

“When you send a drone up and look at it from the top, you can see the eagle,” Daniels describes. “The eagle is the closest thing we have to speak to our creator god.”

The center is already a point of pride for the community.

But it’s also more than that. It’s a space to build up the next generation.

For Chairman Daniels, the swimming pools and slide are cool, but they’re just the bells and whistles of a far greater mission.

“None of this means nothing if our kids don’t live,” he says. “I have one child. I don’t want none of my people to experience what I’m going through in life. I need to help every single person that comes here. We can’t do this alone. We need the greater community to kick in as well. I’m really praying for that.”

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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