RACINE COUNTY — County officials intend to buy River Bend Nature Center from the YWCA with conservation funds and turn its operations over to a newly formed nonprofit group.
County Executive Jim Ladwig proposes to buy River Bend, 3600 N. Green Bay Road in Caledonia, with $400,000 from the county’s Land and Water Conservation, or LAWCON, fund.
The nonprofit River Bend Nature Center Inc., which has support from various local conservation and environmental groups, would keep the property open to the public and reinstate former programs.
Ladwig and other officials shared the plan during a press conference Monday morning at the Ives Grove Office Complex, 14200 Washington Ave., Yorkville. The arrangement is pending full county board approval; final approval could occur March 27.
YWCA President Maureen Martinez said the YWCA bought its first 30 acres at River Bend in 1959. Over the decades the center ran programs designed especially to acquaint youths with nature, leading them to become better environmental stewards.
But River Bend has been largely shut down since last fall by YWCA financial constraints and a change in direction. Martinez and County Board Chairman Peter Hansen said the YWCA’s mission changed a few years ago and no longer pertains to running the nature center.
The pending agreement involves no tax money either to buy or operate the 76-acre natural area along Root River, Ladwig said. The county currently has about $700,000 in LAWCON funds from the National Park Service which must be used to purchase outdoor recreational property.
“Specifically (federal officials) like it to be along a river,” he added.
The county has been trying for years to buy land along the Root and Fox rivers, Ladwig said. But a LAWCON purchase cannot exceed appraised value, and property owners have always wanted more than that.
Ladwig said the River Bend land is appraised at about $425,000 to $500,000. He called the pending purchase of River Bend a perfect use of LAWCON funds, as did Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp.
The plan is to have the new River Bend nonprofit sign a lease of at least 10 years at nominal or no cost, Ladwig said.
“We have a perfect public-private partnership in the works here,” he commented.
Heading up the new nonprofit River Bend group is Roger Chernik, although not in his capacity as president of Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network. Within a month of the county closing on the purchase and a lease signing, he said, he’d hope to get volunteers out there for a general clean-up.
After that, Chernik said, he’d hope to get volunteers to open and cover the buildings on weekends, with regular hours.
During that second month the nonprofit would also undertake a more in-depth preparation, he continued.
In the third month, he hopes the nonprofit can hire an executive director. Some programs may be started in the second half of the summer.
The estimated first-year cost of River Bend building upgrades and operations is about $200,000, he said, and slightly more the second year as the organization begins adding staff. Asked if the plan will require substantial fundraising, Chernik replied, “Absolutely,” including seeking corporate sponsorships. Some donations have already been made, he said. Building and equipment rentals will also bring some income.
“We look forward to cooperating with environmental groups throughout the county,” Chernik said.
About River Bend Nature Center Inc.
This newly formed nonprofit will operate River Bend if the Racine County Board approves the county’s purchase of River Bend Nature Center.
Roger Chernik, president of Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network, is heading up the new nonprofit.
Organizations that have written letters strongly supporting the plan:
- Eco-Justice Center
- Hoy Audubon Society
- Kenosha-Racine Land Trust
- Racine County Conservation League
- Root-Pike WIN
In addition, Chernik said many past River Bend volunteers have voiced support, as has Caledonia Conservancy President Fran Martin.