Bids to be awarded by County Board for additions at PWELC

WILLMAR -- Construction bids for two new additions at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center are expected to be awarded Thursday by the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

WILLMAR -- Construction bids for two new additions at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center are expected to be awarded Thursday by the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

The project is estimated at more than $400,000. The county has made a $100,000 commitment.

The new space is needed to help keep pace with growing participation and programs at the environmental learning center, said Dave Pederson, director of the center.

The Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, which is located north of Willmar near Lake Florida, provides environmental and conservation education for children and adults through classroom and outdoor experiences.

Besides the education building where the additions are taking place, the 500-acre center has a farm site, the Westby building, American Indian village, outdoor trails and challenge course.


Pederson said the nonprofit program had about 800 participants 10 years ago. During the last year there were 15,000 participants and "another sizable jump" is expected for 2007. "We're on a real strong, healthy growth curve," Pederson said.

The new space will provide options for scheduling activities and featuring exhibits, especially during inclement weather and will be "used by thousands and thousands of people" over the years, said Pederson. It will help the center take "a great step in the direction we're going."

The project includes removing walls of two existing rooms on the west side of the education building and adding on a one-story, 1,200-square-foot multipurpose room.

The new combined space will create a 2,000-square-foot room that will allow classroom seating of 220 people or table seating for about 120, said Pederson.

Another 900-square-foot meeting and observation room, nicknamed the tree house, will be built on piers on the south side of the building. That room will be "up in the air," said Pederson, and provide "a tremendous opportunity to view birds."

Some of the funding for the two additions came from sizable financial donations from several local families.

A couple years ago two Grove City sisters, Helen and Ruth Peterson, left the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center $110,000 to promote conservation education. Pederson said most of that money was put into a sustainability fund, but about $10,000 was used to develop architectural drawings that were used to launch fundraising efforts for the current project.

A $100,000 matching pledge by the Earl B. Olson family this year provided the "fire" for the project, said Pederson, and another hefty donation from the Willard and Steve Linder families added another log to the fire.


Both the Olson and Linder families had invested in Prairie Woods "fairly early in the process" to help get the facility operating, said Pederson. "We're really thrilled they're still involved."

A $100,000 commitment from Kandiyohi County and fundraisers by Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center members has brought the fund level to about $340,000, said Pederson.

Additional donations are being sought to make up the difference, he said, and in-kind labor will help reduce construction costs.

Construction, which could begin yet this fall, includes energy conservation plans that are part of the center's goal to operate on a 100 percent renewable energy basis by 2010 and to become a "model conservation camp" for southwest and west central Minnesota.

Pederson said the facility is currently heated with a corn burning stove. A wind turbine was recently installed, although it hasn't been activated yet.

The Norcross Wildlife Foundation recently awarded the learning center a $3,000 grant to purchase a small-scale biofuel processor to turn recycled cooking oil into fuel for the facility's tractor and lawn mower. Pederson is looking for a truck that will also run on the biofuel.

The functioning renewable energy projects at Prairie Woods will serve as models for farmers, homeowners and small businesses to learn from and adapt for their own uses.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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