BYRON — Chad Rolandson has been taking his students to Oxbow Park for 18 years.

“Any way I can get everyone outside, I think is a good thing,” the Byron High School physical education and health teacher said.

In nearly two decades of visiting the park, he said he’s seen changes. In the past, his classes could find available space any day, but more planning is needed today.

Being minutes away from the park, Rolandson said he has the advantage of knowing the park’s staff, but can still find the parking lot overwhelmed with school buses and the grounds bursting with students and others.

He said that’s why it’s good to hear expansion of the nature center is being considered.

“I think it’s done well, but the park’s done so well that it’s time to expand,” he said while visiting the park with his life sports class last week.

Nearby, Luke Fenton was spending time with his children at the Olmsted County park.

The Rochester parent said he sees the potential for expansion, especially after recently accompanying various school groups on park trips in recent weeks. He said those trips opened his eyes to how many schools from throughout the region are drawn to the park’s nature center and zoo.

While acknowledging the added space could address crowding concerns and provide needed space for staff, he said there’s a unique draw to the smaller nature center in a rural location.

“I think it’s the right size for the area,” he said.

The proposed new nature center would grow space from approximately 4,500 square feet to 13,500 square feet, making room for more than 3,000 square feet of classrooms, 2,800 square feet of exhibit space and other amenities.

Karlin Ziegler, Olmsted County’s parks superintendent, said the added space means more schools from throughout the region will have the opportunity to learn from the Olmsted County naturalists.

“We’ve had to turn away quite a few classes,” said Ziegler, a former naturalist at Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo.

The planned three classrooms, which could accommodate 24 to 30 children each, will be designed with the capability to combine into a single room to provide seating for as many as 180 people at banquet tables.

Expanded room for visitor services and rental storage is also planned.

Additionally, the redesign would increase the number of restrooms and provide restroom access from outside when the center is closed.

Ziegler said the additional restrooms will help alleviate congestion in the exhibit areas when restroom lines get long during classroom events. In May 2017, 900 students visited the nature center and zoo in two days. That’s an average of 225 students waiting for the four restroom stalls each hour, equating to four flushes a minute.

Next week, Olmsted County commissioners will be asked to approve seeking approximately $2 million in Minnesota Legacy funds for the first phase of the project, predicted to cost $5.9 million to $7.3 million.

The first phase of the plan would build a new nature center north of the existing facility.

The second phase would involve tearing down the existing building and making additional changes to the site. The second phase could cost as much as $1.6 million.

“The cost of renovating (the existing) building was more prohibitive than building new,” said Bryan Harjes, vice president of Minneapolis-based Hoisington Koegler Group Inc., which has been working to develop concept designs for the county.

Ziegler said she’s confident about Olmsted County’s chance for receiving the state funds, which are generated through sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed in 2008.

“Olmsted County has not put in for Legacy money in the last 10 years, so they are kind of waiting and wondering when we are going to ask for some money,” she said.

Rochester’s Parks and Recreation Department has received Legacy funds for work at Cascade Lake and Gamehaven parks, but Mike Nigbur, the city’s park and forestry division head, said the city isn’t planning to submit an application this year.

Ziegler said the nature of the Oxbow Park proposal also increases its chances of obtaining a share of the Legacy funds dedicated to parks and trails.

“They get a lot of trail building and things like that, but connecting people to the outdoors leg of the (Parks and Trails) Committee is something they don’t see often,” she said.

With 14.25 percent of the Legacy funds going to parks and trail projects, Karlin said the largest award was $2.3 million last year, so seeking $2 million isn’t out of bounds.

While reviewing the proposal last week, county commissioners cited concerns about obtaining the added funding.

Commissioner Matt Flynn said the board will need to establish priorities when it comes to filling the funding gap.

Commissioner Mark Thein indicated he expects those discussions to happen.

“I think we are going to be successful, so we will need to find a way to do it,” he said.

Ziegler said the county isn’t likely to be on the hook for the entire funding gap, which will be better defined as final plans are developed and could be done with the state funds.

She said the county will have the opportunity to seek state bonding funds, as well as potential donations from a variety of sources, including Friends of Oxbow Park, which has raised more than $750,000 for park projects since the organization was created.

“This facility has seen huge community support, and we’ve never really asked for support out there,” she said, noting donations of services and materials are also possible to help reduce costs.

Commissioner Gregg Wright agreed.

“I’m pretty sure we can get some more money from the community,” he said. “Of course, that’s untested, so we can’t plan on it.”

If the Legacy funds are granted, the county will have time to seek additional funding sources.

With the Legacy grant application due this summer, any award would be made in 2020 after approval of the Legislature. Once awarded, the county would have three years to use the funds, which also gives it three years to secure other funding.

“Worst case, you can still say no (to the state funds),” County Administrator Heidi Welsch said.

Ziegler said she thinks other options will reveal themselves as the process moves forward, whether it’s new funding sources or ways to reduce costs.

“We’re going to constantly be looking at the most cost-efficient ways to do things,” she said.

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Local Government Reporter

Randy is the Post Bulletin's local government reporter, covering the city of Rochester and Olmsted County, as well as Destination Medical Center efforts. He joined the Post Bulletin staff in 2014.