So stark is the difference between the old facility at Fridley’s popular nature center and the center’s new digs that longtime resident Cindy Ruschy describes the current space as the “you-died-and-went-to-heaven building.”
The dramatic expansion — courtesy of fundraising and $5 million in state bonding — marks the culmination of a yearslong effort to spruce up the park entrance area at Springbrook Nature Center. After reopening in 2016, the expanded 13,000-square-foot space has helped invigorate programs, boost attendance and attract a new generation of visitors to a city park that’s been around for more than four decades.
“Springbrook is a much busier, more vibrant place,” said Director Mike Maher. “There’s a different feel to the park.”
Last year, Springbrook debuted a nature-based play area and an outdoor amphitheater that seats 150, providing a scenic setting for new events. Now volunteers are working to raise $300,000 for a picnic pavilion and outdoor learning space with bathrooms, a concessions area and an enclosed room for activities. It’s all part of the center’s rebirth, an effort that traces back to the late 1990s, Maher said.
The pavilion, he added, is “sort of the last piece remaining.”
Inside the expanded interpretive center, visitors can explore nature exhibits and catch a glimpse of snakes, toads, frogs and turtles. Bright rooms with high ceilings and large windows are home to a variety of programs and rented out for events like wedding receptions.
It’s a far cry from the original 5,000-square-foot space.
“The building size was limiting us in terms of programs and what we could do,” said Tara Rogness, interpretive program supervisor.
The new outside play area and its nature-inspired elements have also been a big draw for young families, Rogness said.
Alexandra Tallant says she and her 2-year-old daughter, Adelaide, have made ample use of the playground after it opened.
“She loves the water and sand and climbing,” Tallant said.
They venture from Coon Rapids to explore Springbrook’s 3 miles of hiking trails and floating boardwalks and take part in the center’s Playful Polliwogs class, a weekly gathering for children 2 to 5 years old.
Since the reopening, Springbrook’s program attendance has climbed from 15,500 in 2016 to about 16,300 last year. The nature center itself logs about 150,000 visitors a year, many drawn to the 127-acre property to sleuth out the flora and fauna tucked within native prairies, wetlands and oak and aspen forests. Springbrook is known for having one of the longest continuous bird-banding projects in the state. The city of Fridley bought most of the original acreage 48 years ago.
Residents say the park offers a green oasis within a bustling suburb. Patty Phillips, who has lived in Fridley for more than 40 years, remembers taking her son to Springbrook when he was young. Now, she brings her grandchildren. The tricky part, Phillips said, is getting them to leave.