SUTHERLAND—“Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is more than a cliche in southeast O’Brien County.
The conventional wisdom was the thinking behind the name of the Willoway Complex, chosen during a citywide contest in 1995. That was the same year the Sutherland Rotary Club took the old school building under its wing.
“That’s why the SRC started the whole project, to provide things in Sutherland that weren’t provided before. We don’t really compete against anybody,” said Willoway director Mark Cody.
The three-story structure on 409 Ash St. was built in 1921 as the Sutherland Consolidated School. When the town merged into the South O’Brien School District in 1993, classes were relocated to Paullina and Primghar.
The newly created district was going to tear it down, but the Rotary stepped in to refurbish the building as an amenity for Sutherland. Three years later, the indoor swimming pool and fitness center were operational.
“I don’t know many other communities around that even have an indoor swimming pool,” Cody said. “And our fitness center — I will put our equipment, what we have, up with any big fitness center around.”
The director said the Willoway has become a central pillar of the small community after more than a century in town.
“We’ve been working on this and building this all the way through the years,” Cody said.
The complex’s primary use is for senior housing. The second and third floor are home to 17 apartments meant for folks older than 55. The rented spaces were first opened in 1998 after an extensive renovation project.
“They can stay right here in Sutherland. They don’t have to go 30 miles away to another town to find a place to stay,” Cody said.
But the Willoway is more than an old folks’ home, Cody said. In addition to the pool and exercise room which are open to the public, the Willoway has been focusing more on younger people in recent years.
One thing on the checklist is to establish a cafe. It will not be anything fancy, Cody said, but providing a range of coffees and local pastries will hopefully attract folks under 55.
“I don’t even know if that’s the right age because I like my flavored coffees and I’m 65,” he said. “But to provide that little healthier-type deal — think German pastries, Norwegian pastries — just something like that where people come in.
“I’m open to any kind of ideas or suggestions and thought to just try to provide a service for that younger generation. That wife who has a couple kids, she can come down and get them a fruit punch and a doughnut and she can have a coffee for a little while in the morning.”
That dream to expand the center’s appeal is its reason for being in Sutherland in the first place.
The Willoway also is the site of numerous events. Its kitchen hosts Dinner Date, a hearty home-style meal, every weekday. Its east side yard held an artisanal fair during the Sutherland Labor Day Celebration.
“I wanted to do something else for people — say, 50 and above who don’t have kids playing in the park — they can come here and look at crafts and see what we have for sale,” Cody said of the fair.
During the summertime shindig, the campus also hosted fundraiser meals that included hamburgers, sweet corn and breakfast burritos.
The Willoway also garnered recognition from the O’Brien County Public Health Office for its use as a coronavirus vaccination site early last year as senior citizens are among the most vulnerable against COVID-19.
The big picture for Cody is the services his complex imparts to the town of just 630 people.
“We just want to provide services to the community that aren’t offered there,” Cody said. “To help draw new people to live in Sutherland, to entice businesses to come to Sutherland — if there’s anything we can do to help do that, that’s what we need to do.”