PHOTOS BY DAVID ZALAZNIK/JOURNAL STAR
Wildlife Prairie State Park executive director Jeff Rosecrans walks near the edge of the eroded dam that holds the waters of the 16-acre Deep Lake at the park near Hanna City. Rosecrans stepped in to the position in March and is investigating ways to allow the operation of the park to become self-sustaining.
Prairie park: potential and problems
EDWARDS — The dam behind Deep Lake is damaged.
A large section of the earthen structure has washed away, leaving a raw gash of eroding clay under an overflow pipe now perched in mid-air.
The dam holds back 16 acres of water that’s home to Wildlife Prairie State Park’s finest fishery. Deep Lake is also a scenic backdrop for Megan’s Lodge, a cabin that since 2006 has been a popular getaway for families of children with heart defects.
Then there are the water lines that run through the dam and, if damaged, could jeopardize the entire park’s water delivery system.
So there are obvious reasons to rebuild the 25-year-old dam. There are also obvious problems. Estimated repair costs range from $75,000 to $100,000. That’s on top of capital improvements and code issues the state estimates could already cost $7 million.
In many ways, the story of Deep Lake mirrors the story of Wildlife Prairie Park: Great potential coupled with significant structural and operational challenges.
“I hadn’t thought of that, but yeah, in a way that’s true,” said Jeff Rosecrans, the park’s newly hired executive director. “If money was no object we’d just fix the dam. But…”
Rosecrans didn’t finish the obvious. Money has become a major issue at the park since the death of founder Bill Rutherford in 2006.
While the Department of Natural Resources assumed ownership of Wildlife Prairie Park in September of 2000, the agreement also allowed for continued support by the Forest Park Foundation.
Last year when the state cut $828,000 in funding — more than half the park’s $1.5 million operating budget — Forest Park Foundation kept the doors open.
That’s no longer acceptable according to Dr. Bill Rutherford, son of the park founder and president of the foundation started by his parents.
“I don’t want to close the place down, but it isn’t working like it is,” said Rutherford, a retired airline pilot who lives in Geneseo. “I want Prairie Park to get its own legs and carry itself.”
That’s the backdrop against which Rosecrans started his job on March 18. A Kickapoo native, he lives five minutes from Prairie Park with his wife, Jamie and three children, Ryan, Sara and Jacob.
“I was brought in here so our operations can become self-sustaining and any money we get from the state could go toward capital improvements,” said Rosecrans, 40, a self-proclaimed “numbers guy” who most recently worked as a financial consultant for Smith Barney in Peoria. “We’ve got to find a way to get operations here under control.”
Good news for Wildlife Prairie Park is that the 2010 Illinois state budget includes a guaranteed $790,000.
Rutherford also praised work done by Friends of Wildlife Prairie Park, a group of civic leaders working with Rosecrans to develop a business plan. Brad
McMillan is president of the group that includes former Peoria mayor Dave Ransburg, who has also joined the Forest Park Foundation board.
“Things that have transpired in the last four months have given me the first real optimism I’ve had about prospects for Prairie Park since the time my dad and I walked on the property before it opened in 1978,” Rutherford said. “He took me out to show me the park that day. I admired it and then I asked him, ‘How is this place going to support itself.’
“He died without ever directly answering or addressing that question.”
That luxury no longer exists. Funding cuts have forced a streamlining of park operations. Last December the park had 32 employees. Rosecrans said the current head count is 28, including some seasonal workers.
But more needs to be done. Rutherford would not say what level of funding the foundation is willing to sustain, but he said it will be well short of the current $750,000 or so per year.
Rosecrans is considering various ideas to boost attendance at a park that has 2,600 members and attracts 150,000 visitors per year.
In mid-May the park will open a soft-serve ice-cream shop on the brick patio near the visitor’s center. Later this month, movies geared toward children will be shown every Friday in a pavilion near the new ice-cream shop.
Rosecrans hopes creative land use will also lure new visitors. In addition to 1,000 acres on which the park sits, Wildlife Prairie Park holds another 1,000 outlying acres that is not in use.
That will change. The immediate plan for a 250-acre parcel located west of Taylor Road is to create paths for mountain biking, hiking and triathlons. “We’d like to develop a campground there, too,” Rosecrans said. “We’re looking at that land as our recreation area.”
Plans are also being developed for 700 acres north of Illinois Route 8. And Rosecrans has investigated selective timber harvest. While that would generate money, he said there’s little incentive to move forward since revenue would go to the state and not the park.
Beyond that is a long-term goal of adding more lodging. “We’d like to see four or five more cabins scattered throughout the property,” Rosecrans said. “Lodging is a profit center for us right now.”
Generating more money will free up funding for capital projects, Rosecrans said. And there’s no shortage of needed repairs.
First and foremost is Deep Lake. Rosecrans said state engineers propose a low-cost solution to control the seepage problem that involves installing a French drain, replacing eroded soil and installing a siphon.
Though the price tag of $75,000 to $100,000 is well under earlier estimates of up to $1 million, there’s no cash in the park budget to foot the bill. As a result, Rosecrans is looking for help with the project and may have support from Caterpillar, Inc.
“We’re going to be reaching out for corporate partners in the community to help fund these kinds of things,” Rosecrans said.
Rutherford said that’s something his father frowned on. “Let’s face it, he did all he could not to let those things happen.”
Other potential sponsored improvements include providing new homes for owls and hawks and building a new wild turkey display. The latter will be funded in part by the National Wildlife Turkey Federation. Elsewhere, the otter facility needs an upgrade. Built in a low area, the current pen receives significant runoff from the nearby elk and bison fields, Rosecrans said.
Another long-term goal is to move the ticket gate from its location near Taylor Road to a new “orientation plaza” near the main parking lot. The Farnsworth Group (which supplied the drawing below) has drawn up plans for an entry center Rosecrans said would better direct visitors to trails, displays and to the park restaurant. Plans for the $500,000 to $600,00 project include building a small outdoor theater and replacing the current brick patio.
Beyond that is a long list of structural needs that will test Rosecrans’ other work background as a contractor.
“These are all 30-year-old buildings that need TLC. It’s going to be a huge challenge and with the infrastructure here, some days it feels like (the park) is falling apart underneath you,” Rosecrans said.
Despite that, both he and Rutherford are guardedly optimistic.
“If we don’t have what appears to be a viable working plan for the 2010 season, Forest Park is going to have to reduce its subsidy of the operation of the park, which would basically mean shutting it down,” Rutherford said. “What constitutes a viable working plan? That’s subject to a lot of judgment calls come next fall.
“My guess and hope is if it’s looking good enough we’ll be able to bite some more of the bullet and continue to sustain the operation as it gets legs under it.”