Sue Hix, a longtime supporter of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, said she is feeling cautious optimism about the excavation work recently completed at the refuge for a planned new environmental classroom building.
Refuge personnel are hoping to begin construction next year, and then add a visitors center and new refuge staff headquarters in the years following.
The headquarters building now sits along the north side of Sherburne County Road 9 approximately 5 miles west of Highway 169. The site of the new building is on a hill south of the same road a few tenths of a mile west of the headquarters. The site is north of the old school house that was used for many years for refuge activities and was condemned more than a year ago. Refuge personnel are working out a plan for local firefighters to burn down the schoolhouse as part of firefighter training.
A team of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service professionals from several wildlife refuges carried out the excavation work for the education building. The site work included constructing an entrance/exit road, parking areas and a large gravel building pad.
Steve Karel (pronounced Karl) said that the refuge will seek bids next month for the classroom building construction, with the hope that federal funding will come through for construction to begin next spring.
Refuge staff and the its volunteer support group, known as Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, have been seeking funding for about 15 years to build a structure that would have a classroom, visitors center and new headquarters, said Hix, a longtime member of Friends.
It is not known if condemnation of the old schoolhouse due to safety problems hastened refuge personnel to excavate for the building site. But Karel and staff members note that the schoolhouse had been a hub for refuge events, meetings and gatherings for more than 30 years. The Friends group paid for an evaluation to see if the old schoolhouse could qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was did not qualify.
Hix said she has already felt some excitement about the fact that the new classroom building will overlook Schoolhouse Pool, one of the refuge’s water impoundments.
Hix related how she and others at the Friends’ business meeting in August visited the excavation site.
“The sun was starting to set and we looked at the schoolhouse pool and the site, and everybody was (expressing) ‘Wow,’” Hix said. “It was beautiful. It made us feel it really is the right place (to put the planned building). …The breath was taken away for some of us who were quietly enjoying the scene and imagining what it (the building) would look like.”
And after working so long and hearing so much about possible federal funding for the construction during the past dozen or so years and then not seeing the funding come through, some in the group wondered, “Can this really be,” she said. “We don’t want to get too excited (and have hopes dashed again).”
Hix said that there was one year when she had understood the chances of getting the needed federal funding for the building was 95-98 percent. But with the excavation completed for the site, the chances of funding to at least construct the classroom building “is the most promising yet,” she said.
Hix said her hopes are bolstered by what she calls the commitment by the regional Fish & Wildlife Service officials to make the building project happen. If they weren’t committed, the excavation work wouldn’t have happened now, Hix said, calling it a “huge step forward.”
“When you get disappointed so many times, you need a boost, and that (standing at the completed excavation site) was a boost,” Hix added.
The excavation work was accomplished by maintenance workers from the Sherburne Refuge and several other refuges sharing equipment and work time. Fish & Wildlife Service engineers are also assisting by engineering the mechanical design for the classroom building so that adding on the other structures later will fit without redoing connections, Karels added.
The classroom building would be approximately 40 feet by 70 feet and will be designed so the visitor center and headquarters can easily be added on, according to Karel.
“I think the project will continue on,” he said. “Friends of Sherburne have been trying to help with fundraising, such as for the amenities for the classroom.”
Information on the project will be shared during Sherburne Refuge’s upcoming Oct. 5 Fall Festival, which will be in the area of the excavation.