PENDER, Neb. | The car pulled slowly to a stop outside Pender's newest attraction, and the heads of the two women inside craned to the right so they could get the best look they could.

It's a scene that's become common, Katie Gutzmann said. It's not uncommon for people to walk right up to the new Pender Community Center and peer through the windows to get a look inside.

"A lot of people are asking, 'When can we see it?'" said Gutzmann, the manager of the new $7.1 million, 38,500-square-foot facility toward the west end of Main Street.

Everyone's curiosity is soon to be satisfied.

The multi-purpose facility and the tenants inside should all be open in early January, and tours will be offered during a Jan. 3 open house.

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Pender Community Center

An community meeting on how to attract and keep behavioral and mental health professionals in the Thurston County area will take place Jan. 17 at the Pender Community Center in Pender, Nebraska.

Few have gotten to see inside the building, but that hasn't stopped them from booking events. Late Christmas parties, wedding receptions and several meetings have begun to fill the center's 2018 calendar.

"We're booking up, and nobody's even seen it yet," Gutzmann said.

What community leaders hope they'll see inside this impressive facility, which features an event hall with a stage and a multipurpose area with basketball and volleyball courts, an indoor batting cage and a walking track, is a reason to stay in town. Hopes are even higher that it will attract wedding receptions, business meetings and other events from out of town.

"We want it to be utilized by the region," community center board member Bruce Wichman said.

Community development often is thought of as a way to attract people to your town, but it's also keeping those who already live there from going elsewhere by adding to their quality of life.

That desire for more led to the plans for the community center. Surveys of Pender residents continually pointed to a desire for more fitness/wellness options, so some of them finally decided to do something about it.

Informal talks among residents led to more formal discussions with community leaders, who realized that some type of new facility could address a number of community needs and desires.

The Village of Pender mentioned it wouldn't mind moving from its older quarters to a more modern office. Leaders at Pender Community Hospital voiced the desire by many of the young mothers on its staff for a child development center.

The nearly 100-year-old Legion Hall, which had hosted hundreds of wedding receptions and other community events over the decades, was becoming costly to maintain.

The post agreed to donate its land for a new facility, adding momentum to the plans that were taking shape.

Once additional land was acquired, construction started in the summer of 2016 after demolition of the Legion Hall.

The community center will house the village offices, a 24-hour Anytime Fitness franchise and Little Sprouts Child Development Center, which will have an educational component and add to existing daycare options in town. The American Legion and VFW posts also will have their offices and meeting space inside, overlooking Pender's veterans memorial to the east.

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Pender Community Center

Bruce Wichman, Pender Community Center board member, lowers the shades on a window in the center's veterans room that overlooks the city's veterans memorial. The center was built on the site of the former American Legion Hall, which was nearly 100 years old and hosted hundreds of wedding receptions and other celebrations.

A large community room that can be divided into two smaller rooms, complete with modern communications technology, can host a variety of meetings and gatherings.

Derwin Roberts, president of Pender Community Development Inc., said he knows of two hospital employees who mentioned the community center as one of the main reasons they chose to move here rather than commute.

"It's like the front door, the living room," Roberts said of the center, which was paid for with grants and donations. Fundraising, which began in 2013, continues, and the bulk of capital campaign pledges should be paid by 2020, he said.

Wichman said some might say building the community center was a risky decision. He thinks that when wedding receptions, youth basketball tournaments and any number of other events taking place inside the center are attracting local and out-of-town visitors, it will have been a chance well worth taking.

"We talk about the risk of building this. It's less of a risk than doing nothing. If you don't, people aren't going to be here," Wichman said.

Judging from the number of slow drives past the center, Pender residents will be here.

When they finally get a chance to see what's inside, they might not want to leave.

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