Twin Cities nature centers see building boom as popularity grows, programming changes

·5 min read

Many Twin Cities nature centers are getting makeovers as officials remodel or rebuild aging structures to adapt to programming changes and a growing demand for environmental education.

From Richfield to West St. Paul, the construction projects are yielding — or will soon yield — buildings that showcase sustainable design or add classrooms to help more kids and adults connect to nature.

Some nature centers, particularly older ones, need updates, said Jen Levy, executive director of the Association of Nature Center Administrators.

"Things get worn and weary," she said. "Programming philosophies change over the years."

Many nature centers debuted during the same era — 30 to 50 years ago — at the environmental movement's dawn, officials said.

Some are run by nonprofits, while others rely on city or county funding, Levy said.

It can be hard to define what makes a nature center, Levy said. But many sit on dozens of acres, include a main building or interpretive center and offer programs like summer camps or classes for adults and children. Visitors also may walk the trails, view exhibits or rent out spaces for meetings or baby showers.

At Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, built in 1971, another kind of visitor demonstrates the need for a new space.

"Nature's kind of taking over," said Amy Markle, Richfield recreation director, referencing mice and snakes in the building. "It's old, it's outdated, it's in rough shape."

Richfield wants to build a new, 19,000-square-foot building at a cost of about $20 million, Markle said, and is asking for $10 million from this year's bonding bill.

St. Louis Park opened an entirely new Westwood Hills Nature Center last July, replacing a previous building constructed in 1981.

The city bonded for the $12.5 million project, which is designed to produce as much power as it uses, has bird-safe glass and is made from sustainably harvested wood.

It acts as a "green" teaching tool, said Mark Oestreich, nature center manager. "It's another strategy of telling that story of sustainability and lower-impact choices."

Popular during pandemic

A key reason for the expansions and renovations is nature centers' increased popularity. The trend started several years ago but exploded during the pandemic, when people were desperate for outdoor activities. Tamarack Nature Center, owned and operated by Ramsey County in White Bear Township, saw more visitors.

Now, people are seeking environmentally themed summer camps and adult and children's programs. Bird-watching, for example, has drawn more interest, said Mark McCabe, Ramsey County parks and recreation director.

"We've definitely seen a large influx of people and families searching out this facilitated, nature-based programming," McCabe said.

Since 2010, Tamarack has seen a 420% increase in attendance, a county spokeswoman said.

The center is in the midst of two projects — renovating its Garden House into a year-round program center, which will be complete in several weeks, and designing a remodeled interpretive center, which will take several years to finish.

The Garden House project will allow the center to accommodate more day camps, winter classes and gardening programs. It also provides multifunctional space at a cost of $650,000, McCabe said. It was funded through Legacy Amendment dollars and county money.

The revamped interpretive center, including an addition, will expand the office, exhibit and indoor classroom space and create areas for storage and lesson preparation. The cost estimate is $7 million and officials plan to start renovating in 2024; a funding source hasn't been determined.

Tamarack opened in 1979. Over the past decade, it has transitioned from offering activities like hiking or watching wildlife on its 335 acres to more formal programming, McCabe said.

The updated spaces will also help meet demand from school groups, since more schools are implementing experiential learning or environmental education.

"It's a sanctuary for people's health and well-being," McCabe said of Tamarack.

Beyond taxidermy

Officials said nature centers' longtime goals remain the same — blending recreation with education and promoting conservation. But people now want them to offer programs and exhibits that are different from the ones before, they said.

Technology advances and children's changing learning styles drive some of the updates, said Lisa Gilliland, Wargo Nature Center program director.

Wargo in Lino Lakes is remodeling and installing new interior displays this summer in its main building. The center, owned and operated by Anoka County Parks, plans to open again in September. The new features cost about $450,000, funding that comes from the Legacy Amendment and the center's endowment.

The 10,000-square-foot center built in 1992 now features a lot of taxidermy, including cougars peering down from their mounts, Gilliland said.

"The displays that we have now are pretty static," she said.

Today's visitors want technology more than taxidermy, Gilliland said. Young people have shorter attention spans, prefer learning tools that can be manipulated and want to work at their own pace.

One new display will involve a sandbox where kids can create topographical features that project onto a large screen.

The centerpiece will be a realistic-looking, 18-foot sugar maple tree. Kids can climb a spiral staircase to a tree fort where they can learn about animals, she said.

Adults, too, are asking for more and different programming. Parents whose kids attend preschool at Dodge Nature Center, or attended previously, now say they want to learn about nature themselves, said Jason Sanders, executive director at Dodge, a privately run nonprofit based in West St. Paul.

The center, which opened in 1967 and now has four different sites, was among the first in Minnesota, Sanders said.

Dodge is in the midst of a campaign to raise $40 million for sustainability and accessibility updates, Sanders said.

About $30 million has been raised so far, he said, and it has funded upgrades to the Shepard Farm in Cottage Grove, where a new pavilion and a paved parking lot were added, and improvements at the main West St. Paul site. The next project will turn the house at Shepard Farm into an educational center, Sanders said, with two classrooms and office space. It would open in 2023 and cost about $1.2 million.

School groups are still the center's mainstay, but Dodge has added more adult programs to meet demand, including classes in bee ecology, he said.

"Adults, they're seeing their kids enjoy what they're doing, they're seeing their kids wide-eyed about learning something," he said. "They like to be outside as well."

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781

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