New nature center reflects its surroundings
Here are seven things to know as new nature center opens at Olmsted County's Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo.
ROCHESTER — Karlin Ziegler had trouble containing her excitement Friday, shortly before the opening of the new Oxbow Park Nature Center.
“I have jitters standing up here because of the excitement that we are finally here,” the Olmsted County parks superintendent told a group of approximately 50 people who attended a ribbon-cutting event before the official 1 p.m. opening.
“We broke ground in April of 2021, so we are here almost two years later with a fantastic building, and we are super excited to be to the point where we can open this building to the public and share all of the work and all of the thought we put into this building,” she added.
County Board Chairman Gregg Wright said the $8 million project adds to the park that is already the county’s most-visited venue and will likely fuel additional efforts.
“I expect its popularity will grow with the opening of the new nature center,” he said. “With its growth, I envision an expansion of the zoo, additional naturalists on staff and greater opportunities for the people of Olmsted County to visit.”
With the opening, here are a few things to know about the new nature center:
1. The added space will accommodate more large groups.
Ziegler said the nature center and zoo are trending toward seeing 400,000 visitors a year and the former center has struggled to keep up.
“We see thousands of students here on a daily basis,” she said, pointing out limited restroom facilities often led to lines that blocked access to the indoor exhibits, as well as the door leading to Zollman Zoo.
She said the new center’s large vestibule now provides an indoor gathering area where students can line up for the expanded restrooms or be gathered by naturalists hoping to lead them though exhibits or into classrooms.
2. The exhibits represent the center’s surroundings.
“It’s really intended to represent our little corner of the world in Southeast Minnesota,” Ziegler said.
From trees that once stood in the park to small wildlife that include snapping turtles and an injured American kestrel that cannot be released, the space is filled with reminders of what can be seen throughout the park.
“All the pictures on the walls are also photos from inside the park,” Ziegler said, pointing to photos used to depict the surroundings of the exhibited wildlife.
Additional hands-on activities, as well as a map of the park’s waterways on the floor, provide passive learning opportunities that will help visitors better understand their natural surroundings and find new ways to engage with the zoo.
3. Classrooms provide more flexibility.
The new center provides a classroom that can handle up to 165 people at once, compared to the former facility that was limited to 40.
“This is what we are all about,” Ziegler said of the classroom space.
In addition to providing the opportunity for a class four times the size of what was offered at the old nature center, the new classroom can be divided into two or three rooms.
The division means naturalists can teach three classes with up to 55 people in each room at the same time.
Ziegler said more opportunities could be on the horizon.
“Eventually, we will have some sort of outdoor amphitheater for teaching, as well,” she said.
4. Staff has improved surroundings, and easier access to the animals.
The old center had staff and Parks Manager Lonnie Hebl sharing a break room for much of their day-to-day indoor work.
The new center has dedicated office spaces and cubicles for private desk areas.
Additionally, the new space's large windows will allow staff to visually monitor the northern section of zoo from the office and provide a direct path to the outdoor space, rather than needing to pass through public spaces.
The indoor aquatics exhibits also offer more direct access to the animals for maintenance.
“All of the work of the zookeepers can be done behind the scenes, and they can enter the exhibits without coming out in the front to the public area,” Ziegler said, pointing out past practice called for staff to string hoses and equipment as people were seeking a glimpse at a turtle or other creature.
5. Staff helped create aspects of the exhibit space.
While the new center provides Hebl with his own office for the first time, he said his favorite part of the new facility is in the public space.
“Anything that we put our fingers on, that’s my favorite part,” he said.
That includes the reclaimed trees staff cut and prepared as natural elements in the exhibit area, as well as benches they created and rock and metal work that staff members had a hand in.
“It’s fun to know the history of where they come from,” he said of the natural items created from park trees and stone.
6. The project’s second phase will start this summer.
Ziegler said work continues on the building’s exterior and landscaping outside public viewing areas, but the project’s second phase is also on the horizon.
The former nature center is expected to be razed in June, making way for new access to the zoo.
The work will create the need for a temporary detour for zoo visitors this summer but will eventually provide a zoo gateway featuring native gardens, lawn demonstration spaces and gathering spots for visitors.
The second phase falls within the $8 million price tag for the project, which received approximately $2.3 million in funds from the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy program.
7. Fundraising continues to benefit the project.
The nonprofit Friends of Oxbow organization pledged to raise $1 million for the new nature center, providing the bulk of funds for the new exhibits.
Friends of Oxbow President Seanne Buckwalter said the group has raised $700,000 and has a plan to close the gap within a year.
“We have had a generous donor who has pledged $150,000, if we can raise the matching $150,000 to get us to our $1 million goal,” she said. “We are very close, so we’re not done yet.”
Donations can be made online at FriendsofOxbow.org .