FOREST CITY | The Friends of the Winnebago County Conservation Foundation has started fundraising for a $1.1 million environmental education center.

The proposed site for the education center, which has been designed by the nonprofit foundation and the Winnebago County Conservation Board, is south of the north junction of Highways 9 and 69 about two miles north of Leland. It would be used for environmental programming for school and civic groups as well as the public.

“Three-fourths of the counties in Iowa have a nature center, whether it’s like this or something else,” said Robert Schwartz, Winnebago County Conservation Board director. “We’re in the minority, and we’re hoping to change that.”

The education center, which will be “more centrally located” within the county, will house the offices of the conservation board that are currently in a small, outdated building in Thorpe Park, and will serve as a meeting space for local organizations.

“I know we’ve had a lot of people tell us they’d love to come to programs but they won’t drive out here,” said Lisa Ralls, Winnebago County Conservation Board naturalist. “Our location is hindering what we can do.”

The accessible building will be a 7,680-square-foot wooden post and beam building with 28-foot vaulted ceilings. It will feature green design elements, like geothermal and solar energy systems.

The center will feature offices, a meeting room seating 85 to 100 people, spaces for a variety of exhibits, workshops and activities, a staff meeting room and kitchenette.

Ralls said the conservation board’s current location in Thorpe Park has limited capacity to accommodate environmental programming, guest speakers and other events for children and adults as well as visitors.

“I really think [the proposed education center] would be a game-changer as far as environmental education goes, not only because it’ll offer a better space for programming but people will be able to come in and view displays,” she said.

More than a year ago, the foundation and the conservation board hired Sand Creek Post and Beam of Wayne, Nebraska, and Martin Gardner Architects of Strawberry Point, Iowa, to design the new center. The project, including building construction and professional services, comes with a price tag of about $1.12 million.

Schwartz said funding will dictate the project’s completion, but the two entities are looking to have it completed by the end of 2018 if the funding is secured.

“This will be the largest capital improvement project we’ve ever had,” he said of the conservation board’s involvement in the education center.

The foundation and the conservation board plan to host public meetings throughout Winnebago County after the holidays to inform people about the new center and answer questions.

The conservation board said in a news release that the foundation has received "several large donations" to finance design and drawings of the center. Fundraisers have been organized, and the Winnebago County Conservation Board has committed money to the project, as well.

But the foundation said it needs help in the form of private donations and grants. All donations are tax-deductible.

For those interested in donating to the new environmental education center, call 641-565-3390.

Reach Reporter Ashley Stewart at 641-421-0533. Follow her on Twitter at GGastewart.

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