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Willow Lake Nature Center project receives $400K boost from CAT grant

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Footings go in at Willow Lake Nature Center

The contractor puts the footings in for the Willow Lake Nature Center.  Submitted photo

On Thursday, December 2, the Enhance Iowa Board awarded a $400,000 Community Attraction and Tourism (CAT) grant to the Willow Lake Nature Center project.

“This is huge, definitely game changing and very instrumental for creating the Willow Lake Nature Center,” said Scott Nelson, director of the Harrison County Conservation Board.

The footings and foundation for the building are being put in now.

The total cost for the construction of the nature center and the exhibits it will contain is projected at $4,224,283.

Each level of the two-story building will cover about 7,000 square feet.

Nelson said the benefits of the new nature center for conservation and environmental education will be a game changer, too.

“We provide conservation and environmental education to all the community schools in the county, and we all know the best way to learn is to get out of the classroom and bring them (the students) out for field trips,” said Nelson. “We want them to first be able to go to a facility that has awesome displays, interactive displays and exhibits so they can learn from those, along with a stand-alone classroom, that all being a stepping-off point to learn and garnish information inside this facility and then to get out and learn more outdoors.”

The projected timeline is that the construction of the building will be completed in November 2022. Simultaneously, Harrison County Conservation is working with a group that is designing and constructing the exhibits and displays. Those will be installed after the building is completed. That work will be done around mid-winter 2023. A grand opening with a ribbon cutting is planned for the spring of 2023.

Planning for the new nature center started about eight years ago. Currently the conservation department is working out of a pole shed that was constructed in 1979.

“It’s one of those deals, when is the best time to plant a tree?” asked Nelson. “It’s 20 years ago or today. Eight years ago the board said let’s start working on this.”

Phase I was the completing the construction documents. Phase II is the construction of the building.

Fundraising is part of the phases

Nelson said the conservation department contributed its program dollars toward the project and some smaller grants and donations added to the fundraising effort.

The Harrison County Board of Supervisors committed $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward the nature center. The nature center fits in with the purpose of the ARPA funds in that during the COVID-19 pandemic, people were encouraged to get outdoors and learn about nature.

In addition, the Willow Lake Nature Center will promote tourism.

“The $1 million from the county was the big kicker in receiving the CAT grant money,” said Nelson.

The project has also received grants from the Iowa West Foundation and the Gilchrist Foundation.

Nelson is optimistic about raising the remaining money needed to meet the fundraising goal. Another $87,000 is needed for the construction of the building and $350,000 is needed for the exhibits and displays.

Nelson said many corporations and employers wait until the end of the year to make donations. He added that he is waiting to hear back on some grants, and after the first of the year he will engage with some of the bigger foundations in Omaha, Nebraska.

Donations in any amount will be welcomed. Some levels of donations bring an amount of recognition, as follows.

  • Platinum, $500,000 plus, naming rights to the nature center room
  • Gold, $300,000 plus, naming rights to the classroom
  • Silver, $150,000 plus, naming rights to the outdoor classroom
  • Bronze, $75,000 plus, naming rights to the entry plaza
  • The donation level of Environmental Education Sustainer ($10,000 to $74,999) will put a donor’s name on a recognition plaque in the nature center.
  • Donors at the level of Friends of Willow Lake Nature Center ($50 to $9,999) provides name recognition on a giving plaque.

The benefit of the project is that is engages people with nature but it is also an investment in children’s future and their stewardship of the environment.

“It’s a huge investment, in terms of visitors and serving the local population, and the schools and the education of students,” said Nelson.

The use of the nature center will be to educate about all facets of nature but the main focus will be on water and water quality.

Nelson said selecting a focus is similar to the Hitchcock Nature Center, which exists to develop and foster appreciation and understanding of the Loess Hills, or the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center in Woodbury County, which also has a focus on the Loess Hills.

At the Willow Lake Nature Center, the scope of familiar terms such as “watershed” and “waterways” will be explored, as well as what actions can be taken today to ensure that future generations will have safe, quality water.

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