One step closer

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Dave Hagen said he was "sweating bullets" for a few moments in the Council Chambers Monday night, but in the end, he and other members of the Concerned Citizens for the Hormel Nature Center walked out of the room smiling.

Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Dave Hagen said he was "sweating bullets" for a few moments in the Council Chambers Monday night, but in the end, he and other members of the Concerned Citizens for the Hormel Nature Center walked out of the room smiling. They were one step closer to achieving the second part of their mission to expand and enhance the nature center.

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What the citizens group wanted, and received, was a directive from the Austin City Council giving nature center Director Larry Dolphin permission to apply for grants from the state Department of Natural Resources and other possible sources to expand the nature center. With only 10 days to go until the deadline of April 1, it was a case Monday night of now, never or next year for grant applications.

"This is a no-lose proposition," Hagen said. "With the buffer zone proposed here, we think we would insure the nature center forever … And then our grandkids can say, ‘At least our forefathers had the wisdom to do this.’"

Hagen was joined at the podium by fellow organization member Steve Persinger, who has talked to surrounding land owners with some success.

"The farmer who owns the land to the north said that if he had to sell, he would rather sell to the nature center," Persinger told the council, referring to roughly 60 acres of farmland north of the center that the group has identified as the first option for expansion. "I think we all would agree that the protection and expansion of the nature center is a natural thing and a good thing for the nature center."

Persinger and Hagen were supported by the presence of nearly a dozen other area residents. The group’s dual mission – opposing a possible residential development near the nature center and supporting the center’s expansion – has the support of far more people, however. Persinger reported a roughly 90 percent success rate in gathering signatures for a petition to that effect. So far the group has collected 2,500 signatures.

Despite Hagen having phoned council members in advance of the meeting, the motion didn’t pass without argument. Third Ward Councilwoman Gloria Nordin, who also serves as Park and Recreation Committee chairwoman, was a particularly tough sell; she never truly seemed convinced that the need for the grants was particularly urgent. When Nordin asked Persinger why the applications couldn’t wait until the group knew for sure the farmer wanted to sell, Persinger’s answer was a practical one.

"In order to know if the land’s for sale, you have to have the power to make an offer," Persinger said. "Otherwise, they’ll just tell you to come back when you’ve got the money and they’ll talk then … It’s like telling someone you might like to buy their car someday. Somehow I don’t think that person would take your offer too seriously."

Persinger thought $300,000 might cover the costs of the initial expansion and planting: ideally half would be paid through a DNR grant, and half paid by the Concerned Citizens’ fund-raising efforts or grants from organizations such as Ducks Unlimited or the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Nordin’s motion to limit the application of any successful grants to expansion of the nature center north, not northwest or west, died for lack of a second.

Second Ward Councilwoman Jeanne Poppe then motioned simply to direct Dolphin to apply for the grants and the council’s vote was unanimous. This occurred despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of City Park and Recreation director Denny Maschka, who ultimately is responsible for the nature center. Maschka expressed concerns about future care of any expanded portions of the center as well as funding to pay for that ongoing maintenance.

Also unspecified in the motion was where exactly the proposed expansion would go and who exactly would pay the matching funds if the grant is approved. Dolphin said he understood that it was the Concerned Citizens group, not the city, that would be raising funds for the expansion and indicated that he would be writing that into the grant applications.

Recently appointed council member Roger Boughton was in favor of the grant application.

"I’ve been on the council eight weeks," he said, "and I’ve seen us gamble on funding because we thought it would be good for the community, like with that TIF (tax increment financing) district," Boughton said. "This doesn’t seem any different … You (the Concerned Citizens) are to be commended for your forward thinking."

After the vote, half the people in the Council Chambers headed for the hall outside.

The Concerned Citizens group will meet at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Ruby Rupner Auditorium in the nature center. The group also will be at the Home and Vacation Show on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Riverside Arena.