Oxbow Park Nature Center concept

A concept design depicts the possible layout for the proposed new Oxbow Park Nature Center.

It seems almost laughable to say an attraction that draws 300,000 annually is underutilized

That, however, is the way we feel about Olmsted County’s Oxbow Park Nature Center and Zollman Zoo. And that’s why we support a county effort to secure Minnesota Legacy funds for expansion of the nature center.

It’s just not possible to squeeze many more school visits and students into the current 4,500-square-foot facility, with its inadequate classrooms, over-crowded teaching space and congested exhibit room.

Somehow, though, park officials have managed to increase school-sponsored student visits from 3,049 in 2014 to 4,466 in 2017.

Now, said Karlin Ziegler, Olmsted County parks superintendent, “We’ve had to turn away a few classes.”

That simply shouldn’t be the case in a robust, growing county that draws visitors from around the world. The school visits don’t include the thousands of visitors who come to the park as part of a family outing on a Sunday afternoon, or with guests from out of town.

So, yes, it is time to make a serious investment in upgrading Oxbow’s nature center.

Plans call for a new building of 13,500 square feet, with 3,000 square feet of classrooms and 2,800 square feet of exhibit space. Three classrooms would have the capability to be combined into one room for a large group, including banquet tables for special events. Imagine your organization’s next annual meeting or dinner event in such a beautiful, natural setting — with a tour of the adjacent zoo as an added attraction.

Funding for such a project, of course, is an issue. Olmsted County will have to seek $2 million in Legacy funding, leaving as much as $5 million needed to complete the first phase of the project.

Additional sources could include state bonding, fundraising by the Friends of Oxbow Park, and other foundation and private donations.

These sorts of projects are never easy to pay for, given all the other demands on county funds. But there is nothing else in southeastern Minnesota like Oxbow Park’s combination of nature center and zoo. The facility fills both an educational and recreational need in the region, as witnessed by the attendance numbers.

A new and improved nature center building would greatly enhance Oxbow Park’s value to our greater community. And it would allow the park to be used to its full potential.

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