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The Sioux San Hospital site on Canyon Lake Road in Rapid City.

Journal file

What will be the future for a new Indian Health Service facility in Rapid City? Should it be built on its historic site on the west side of town or on the developing east side closer to major highways, hotels, restaurants and other retail development?

Indian Health Service, or IHS, has been working since 2006 to develop a plan to replace the 80-year-old hospital that should have been closed years ago. The massive brick structure that is the centerpiece of the IHS campus now only offers urgent care services.

After years of discussions and planning, the federal government has allocated $117 million to build a new health care center on the same site and the process is crawling ahead. The plan calls for razing 15 smaller buildings and constructing a 200,000-square-foot outpatient facility.

On Monday, IHS officials held what was billed as a public meeting to discuss a mitigation plan for the Campus Historic District that included moving or tearing down old buildings. It quickly turned into a discussion about an entirely new location for the health center.

Three Unified Tribal Health Board members said they would rather see it built on the east side of Rapid City and that the buildings on the Sioux San campus be preserved for use by the Oglala Sioux, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, which have strong historical ties to the campus that previously served as a boarding school in the era of forced assimilation and later as sanitarium for Native Americans suffering from tuberculosis. As a result of that past, Native Americans are still buried there.

Their desire for an east side location is more than a shot in the dark. A local developer, Hani Shafi, has offered to donate land near Menards and Western Dakota Technical Institute for the new health care center.

In an interview with the Journal, Shafi said the location could lead to a partnership between the school's health care training program and IHS, which seems to struggle retaining and recruiting employees in western South Dakota.

Tribal leaders like the location since it is near Interstate 90, S.D. Highway 79, the airport, and hotels and restaurants in a fast-growing area of town. IHS officials, however, said the project might be too far along to change course. Plans now call for awarding a design contract by the end of the year and starting a three-year construction project in 2019.

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But given that it has taken 12 years to get to this point while medical services have been steadily reduced at Sioux San and that the federal government is known for moving at what some might describe as a glacial pace, it seemingly does little harm to consider what has been put on the table.

Before the federal government spends at least $117 million for the project why not hit the pause button and explore the pros and cons of building the health center on the east side and preserving the Sioux San campus buildings for other uses?

What is really best for Native Americans and what makes the most sense for Rapid City as well as IHS? It is a conversation that should take place as all parties will live with the decision for generations to come.

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