Nature center planned in Sunfish Lake Park

A nature center planned for construction at Sunfish Lake Park in Lake Elmo will be known as the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center.
A nature center planned for construction at Sunfish Lake Park in Lake Elmo will be known as the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center.

A new nature center will be built in Lake Elmo’s Sunfish Lake Park with a focus on teaching the community about natural history and ecology of the area.

Spearheading the effort is Lake Elmo resident Tony Manzara. The facility will be known as the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center, after Manzara’s wife, who died in 2015.

“What we want to do is have it alive and to serve the people of Lake Elmo,” Manzarra said. “Everyone we have talked to is enthusiastic. We have a lot of volunteers who have said, ‘We want to help you with that.’”

Sunfish Lake Park consist of approximately 284 acres of woodlands, wetlands and prairie wildlife habitats and is located on the northwest side of Sunfish Lake. A preliminary sketch of the nature center includes a display area, a classroom, gift shop, bathroom and office space.

The Lake Elmo City Council unanimously approved an agreement April 18 for the center with the Friends of Lake Elmo’s Sunfish Lake Park, a nonprofit.

The development and operation agreement includes lease of approximately one acre south of the parking lot at Sunfish Lake Park. This includes a deadline of three years from the date of the agreement for the construction to be complete.

The Friends of Lake Elmo’s Sunfish Lake Park will be responsible for the cost of constructing and maintaining the building. City costs will be limited to staff time for promotion of Friends programs, assistance with grant applications or other governmental agency approvals. The city will continue to be responsible for the maintenance of the access road, parking lot and all trails within the park. The Friends will provide the city with free use of the Nature Center building for public purposes, such as community events. Should the project fail and the building abandoned, the city will retain $20,000 in the escrow for removal of the building.

Resident Connie Kirk is a member of the Friends of Sunfish Lake Park. When the group first met to plan the nature center, Kirk said, she was skeptical there would be enough volunteers to complete the task. However, Kirk said many community members have stepped up to help.

“They keep saying, ‘When can we start, when will we be able to volunteer?’” Kirk said.

According to Kirk, the group sees the nature center as a way to engage with people of all ages and abilities.

“We are envisioning a quiet day at the park for people with autism to come,” Kirk said. “There are so many things this nature center can do for the community.”

The next step for the group is to complete a design plan and submit a building permit application to the city.

“I know it has been a challenging and arduous road, and I appreciate your tenacity,” Mayor Mike Pearson said to Manzara. “May your tenacity, and I’m sure it will, carry on to make it a success and a fitting monument to your wife. We appreciate it.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]