Mary Blondy, of The Loyalsock Foundation, envisions a state-of-the art wellness center, with a pool and meditation area, in rural Sullivan County.

This rural Pennsylvania county does not have a public gymnasium. A retired banker has a $20 million plan.

LAPORTE, Pennsylvania – High up an old logging road, deep in the forest, Mary Blondy envisions a doorway amid rocks, ferns and fallen leaves.

Fluorescent ribbons and surveyor’s flags break up the browns and greens of the woods on this chilly November afternoon. They delineate the future location of the Summit Wellness Center, the places where the windows and the door will be, as well as the meeting space and the weight rooms. There will be an indoor track, a treehouse, a must-have pool, and hiking trails. A nearby rocky ledge, which runs through the property like a spine, will be an outdoor classroom or amphitheater.

“It’s so beautiful when you can see it without the leaves,” Blondy said below the crest. “I have to take a picture.”

Construction of The Summit will cost approximately $20 million, in two phases, and will take approximately five years. The land has already been acquired. Blondy and several other longtime local volunteers have solicited donations from everywhere — from church groups, county government, health care providers — and they’re ready to talk to anyone who can help. When completed, The Summit will be the only public place to train and swim in Sullivan County, one of the most rural and least populated areas in Pennsylvania.

“I would be so excited to see it,” said Sue Mullen, 62, president of the Sullivan County Recreation Association. “I’ve been working on it since my kids were little.”

Rural America is blessed with unique outdoor recreation opportunities and in Pennsylvania, Sullivan County has some of the state’s best hiking trails, state parks, and road and gravel biking opportunities. . People often move there or buy second homes because there are so few people: the county’s population fell from 6,428 to 5,868 between the 2010 and 2020 US censuses.

This low population density, however, is why large cable and internet providers or retail chains, such as gyms, often don’t come.

Rural exercise deserts are also more than an inconvenience. Obesity rates among adults living in rural areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are nearly 20% higher than in “metropolitan counties.” According to the Rural Health Information Hub, a site supported by the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Rural health care facilities are less likely to have nutritionists, dieticians, or weight management experts available. Rural areas may lack exercise facilities and infrastructure to encourage physical activity.

More than a quarter of Sullivan County residents were over the age of 65, according to a Penn State-Harrisburg population study from 2010 to 2017. Danielle Rhubart, assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, said a center of wellness, like The Summit, can provide very practical assistance by helping elderly residents increase their heart rate. As a sociologist, Rhubart is also interested in how a wellness center can reconnect rural communities.

“They provide a place for seniors to meet neighbors and friends, meet, gather and connect,” Rhubart said. “I call it a social infrastructure.”

Blondy, who grew up in Shunk, Sullivan County, said the foundation for an indoor fitness center and swimming pool began with the founding of the Sullivan County Recreation Association in 2006, long before she does not get involved. Mullen, the association’s president, said the biggest hurdle over the past 15 years has always been money.

“We’ve done small projects in the county, like building parks and fields,” she said. “We were doing this while we were trying to achieve our goal, but we’re talking millions of dollars in a county of about 6,000 people. We are so small and have always been overlooked for funding. That doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it. »

Mullen briefly operated a gym in Dushore called Body Concepts by Sue in the 1980s.

“I was teaching aerobics about 5, 6 days a week, but it just wasn’t profitable,” she said of her long-closed gym.

Frank Comfort, another early proponent of an indoor facility, grew up in Harrisburg and now lives in Eagles Mere, Sullivan County. He spent 30 years as head swimming coach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Now retired, Comfort drives about 35 miles one way to go swimming at a YMCA in a nearby county. He helps the Sullivan County High School basketball team in Laporte.

“Oh my God no. There is no swim team,” he said.

Comfort said thousands of children, including Blondy, learned to swim in the pool at a Dushore couple’s home. Apart from rivers and lakes, there was no other place to bathe.

While Blondy is eager to divert credit from the project, Comfort and Mullen said she was the catalyst to turn a dream into blueprints and stakes in the ground.

“Mary is an unstoppable force,” Comfort said.

Blondy, an avid swimmer and hiker, founded the Loyalsock Foundation in 2019 as a nonprofit that would help secure grants, endowments, and donations to purchase the land and plan and build The Summit. She is retired from banking and admits she is very “detail oriented”.

“I love spreadsheets,” she said.

Blondy seeks state and federal grants and has made presentations to every elected official and organization that will listen. US Senator Bob Casey visited the venue with her in August and told The Inquirer The Summit would be “more than a gym”.

“I saw the potential for this center, not only as a health facility, but also as a stimulus for the entire Sullivan County economy,” Casey said in a statement.

The Summit will have varying monthly fees for seniors, individuals and families, and Blondy hopes summer residents will be interested in seasonal passes. She said the Loyalsock Foundation is also seeking an additional endowment of $10 million to support the running costs of the Summit.

As the sun was setting, Donna Iannone, a Sullivan County commissioner, walked down a trail from the nearby high school to meet Blondy at the 70-acre site. Iannone said The Summit would be a game-changer and not change the face of the county.

Iannone, a cyclist who has courted major races in Sullivan County, said she can’t wait for the pool to be built.

“I have my sights set on half an Ironman,” she said. “But I need to refine my swimming.”

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