The White Cedar Nature Center sits in the heart of Peninsula State Park and it is due for an update. Park officials teamed with the Friends of Peninsula State Park to secure funds for the project that is 50 years in the making.
“In the original nature center plans, which date to 1965, there was an addition. So we’ve been waiting,” said Park Naturalist Kathleen Harris. “The great movement came with Kelli in 2013, but this has been out there for 50 years.”
State Park Superintendent Kelli Bruns has tried to get the project in the pipeline since she came to the park in 2011, but state funding proved the biggest hurdle.
“There has been a project submitted for many years for a brand new nature center at the park but it all ties into funding and how the state budget allocates state funding for state parks. It would be over a $1 million facility,” said Bruns of a new building. “In the state parks system, with all the other needs we have that are safety and compliance related, those new nature centers, new park offices, they just continually keep getting bumped every budget cycle.”
Eventually, Bruns decided to approach the Friends of Peninsula State Park to see if they would be interested in funding support. The group began applying for match grants through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program. The program offers phased grants, amounting to $20,000 each year for three years. After securing the first two phases, the Friends are hoping to receive the third and final grant this spring. The group must match each $20,000 grant with fundraising of their own.
“We have $80,000 in the bank ready to go and we’ll have $120,000 in the bank ready to go this spring, so we have money to get off the ground and going,” said Bruns. “But the department will not allow you to move forward typically with everything until you have all of the money to do all of the work because they don’t want to be stuck with a building that was 75 percent completed.”
The project includes an addition to the nature center that will nearly double its size and include modernized bathrooms. Bruns believes the grant funds may come close to covering basic construction if in-kind donations roll in, such as heating, air conditioning and other maintenance costs donated by local companies. But for everything they hope to do at the center, including an observation deck overlooking the prairie, improving the parking lot and basic site work, they will need to find additional funds.
“I think we deliver really great programs, we do a great job,” said Harris. “But in a lot of ways, it does sometimes feel like you’re working out of a car every time you get things.”
Storage, preparation space and managing the 100-person school groups that pass through the nature center emphasized the need for an addition.
“It’s not the Field Museum of Chicago, that’s not what we want to be,” said Harris. “We want to be the concierge of the park where we can help people know where to go, what to see in the park and in the county, offer some programs and do it efficiently and effectively.”
The project will be independent of the Door County Parks Master Plan that is set to open in the next few months. Bruns, describing herself as ambitious, hopes utility work at the site will begin this fall.
But it could have all come to a screeching halt if the proposed freeze of Knowles-Nelson Stewardship funds in the 2015 state budget would have passed.
“If that program would have gotten scrapped we might not have been able to apply for that phase three and that may have been the tipping point for the Friends,” said Bruns. “They may not have wanted to continue knowing that the third phase wasn’t available.”
One of the biggest challenges park officials are facing now regarding funding the project is the shadow of Eagle Tower that has drawn most of the public’s attention to a different part of the park.
“The tower is a high-profile type project and we all want to see good things happen there, but we also all feel very strongly about this project or we never would have initiated it back in 2013-14 prior to any issues that we had at the tower,” said Bruns. “There’s a different value at each site. Climbing the tower and being at that location versus experiences you get at the nature center, they can be very different. Both very valuable, but very different.”
The Friends of Peninsula State Park maintains an Interpretive Nature Center Endowment fund on their website and can accept donations while the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) develops its plan and costs for the project. When the DNR and the Department of Administration (DOA) approve building plans, the state park will kick off a capital campaign fund to cover the difference between the grant funds and final cost.