Prairie Park Nature Center staff members want to brainstorm with Lawrence community

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This summer, hordes of people flocked to Lawrence City Hall, clutching posters and handwritten speeches, demanding city leaders keep Prairie Park Nature Center open. 

City commissioners listened, and they took the threat of closure off the table. Now Parks and Rec leaders want to hear from the public again. 

The Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department is hosting a community conversation to discuss ideas for the nature center from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9 at 2730 Harper St.

“We’ve worked with (staff) at the nature center and they’re coming up with creative ideas, creative ways to potentially bring in more revenue, and we just want to give the public the opportunity to share any of their ideas as well,” said Annette Deghand, recreation operations manager. “Maybe people want to see some changes, some upgrades, some different programming. Do they like our current hours? … Are there other programs that they want to see us offer? Anything goes. We’re really trying to be creative.” 

Marty Birrell, director and naturalist, said Prairie Park Nature Center patrons are an intelligent, skilled group of people who she knows will bring strong ideas to the conversion.

“We find that we have a very well educated and highly informed local community that can aid us in finding solutions,” Birrell said. 

The Prairie Park Nature Center, like all Parks and Rec facilities, is being challenged to bring in more revenue in order to offset expenses. 

Built in 1999, the center did not have specific revenue targets in the beginning.

“When the nature center was first built, there wasn’t really an emphasis on revenue production. It was more, ‘Let’s get it up and running, and provide environmental education to the community,’” Birrell said. “Reality kicked in during the recession, of course, and the city began developing firmer revenue targets, which we were able to meet right up to 2019.”

In 2019, the center earned about $57,000, Birrell said, exceeding its revenue goals for that year. Then the pandemic decimated all of the center’s spring, summer and fall programming, and thus obliterated its earnings for 2020. Some small gains were made in 2021, but they were insignificant, Birrell said. 

The center brings much of its revenue from large school field trips, which are starting to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

“My October is really booked with big field trips, and it’s delightful to see the kids come back,” Birrell said. 

Even with field trips and educational classes, nature centers do not tend to generate enough revenue to cover their operating costs. And Birrell is reluctant to endorse higher fees for educational offerings because it would limit accessibility. 

“We know from experience that increasing fees significantly on programs isn’t going to achieve (our goals),” Birrell said. “We have our program fees in line with other municipalities of similar size and appearance to Lawrence. So we know what it is that the citizens can support.” 

Instead of raising fees, Birrell and her staff are looking at alternative ways to bring in money, which include sponsorships and support from local businesses. 

“We’re looking at options like … fundraising, walks or runs. You know, that kind of thing,” Birrell said. “Community people have offered their experience. So once again, we’re looking toward getting input at our community forum to find those people who have additional marketing experience or … (who) are experienced in conducting 5k runs.”

Looking forward, Birrell said she feels she has complete support from city leaders, including City Manager Craig Owens, whose initial budget plan advocated closing the center.  

“(Owens is) giving us a lot of latitude right now. And he has come out several times here, and we’ve chatted with him. So I think we have good communication guidelines set up with him and the city itself, and we have had the full support of our department,” Birrell said. 

Birrell would love to see people come to Sunday’s event and share their ideas on how to help close the city’s budgetary gap and improve the nature center.

Participants can fill out a survey and discuss their ideas in an informal, open community discussion. 

“We’re feeling rather positive about the whole thing, (and) we’re also feeling very positive about the prospect of getting advice and input from the community because, honestly, you know, yes, my paycheck comes from the city, but I really work for the people,” Birrell said.  

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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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