Jon Allen had been thinking for years about building an environmental learning center in Savage, where he worked for the city’s parks and natural resources departments, when in 2009 the city and the Jeffers Foundation opened the doors on a $2.45 million, LEED Gold-certified facility on the shores of McColl Pond.

Today, the McColl Pond Environmental Learning Center is a mainstay in the environmental education programs for nearby schools and is booking events one year in advance. The center recently celebrated its fifth “birthday” with free outdoor yoga, music, kite-building and a show of birds of prey.

It’s a great payoff for a city that for many years quietly funded free naturalist education in area schools, an activity that got them noticed by Paul Oberg, CEO of the Jeffers Foundation, which ultimately contributed $800,000 to the center.

“I can’t speak more positively about … their attitude toward their community and their children,” said Oberg, whose Wayzata-based center focuses on promoting environmental education. “It seems to be a dedication and a focus in Savage,” he said, “and I don’t see it as prevalent in other cities.”

Starting in the 1990s, Allen and part-time naturalists started working with Glendale Elementary, across the road from McColl Pond. They taught students how to snowshoe and identify animal tracks and led them on nature hikes.

Today, classes throughout the Prior Lake-Savage and Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school districts are at the McColl center several times a week during the school year, exploring the pond and prairie and sometimes even the building. There’s plenty to explore: Parts of the building are made with recycled wheat and wood. It limits runoff with rain gardens, concrete that lets water flow back into the soil and thousands of rooftop plants to capture the rain. A 2010 state Legacy grant put a solar array on the roof; the building already collected passive light through its tall southern windows.

The center has been a particular blessing for Glendale Elementary, whose teachers take classes there on walking field trips at least every other week, said principal Sam Richardson. Walking in the prairie, marsh and woods, students record how the seasons change in their science notebooks. Teachers often integrate the environmental setting into writing and math lessons they can teach in the center’s classrooms.

“It’s really been an amazing resource for us,” said Richardson, especially with the Prior Lake-Savage district’s two year-old commitment to “E-STEM,” education that emphasizes the environment, science, technology and math.

As part of the city’s agreement with the Jeffers Foundation, schools in the local districts use the center for free “in perpetuity,” Oberg said.

The center does charge for weddings, graduations and other events, and the growth in demand helped the center break even for the first time last year. The first few years were quiet, said Robbie Bunnel, who books events for the center. But two years ago, word-of-mouth caught on among parents of graduating students. The center had enough traffic to organize a “graduation fair” with food vendors and printing companies. Today, registrants line up each Monday to book the center months in advance.

For Allen, a three-decade veteran of city staff, the McColl center is the fruit of an idea he’s had since 1991. But he gives credit to the city’s leadership for funding most of the $2.45 million project. He said that commitment is part of a tradition in Savage: More than one-third of the city’s 17 square miles is set aside as open space. In 1995, during the construction boom, the city passed an ordinance that made developers preserve trees or pay to replace them elsewhere.

“We consider ourselves a natural resource-based community,” Allen said.

Now that the center is established, he said, the next phase is to build out one room with science-museum-like dioramas of the trees, water and soil that make up the pond’s ecosystem. Plans to build and fund it are still down the road.

In the meantime, Allen is content. Reflecting on what the center has become in its first five years, he talks about buses pulling up, full of kids, and their laughter as they run around in the open air. It makes him happy to see them fishing on the pier, looking for animal tracks or making tracks of their own as they hike or snowshoe.

“It’s one of those feel-good stories,” he said.


Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.