New education center coming to Kennekuk

DANVILLE — About 17 years after the Vermilion County Conservation District's education staff first suggested building a new outdoor school facility, ground will be broken Sunday at the site of a new environmental education center at Kennekuk County Park.

"We're very excited to finally get the project going," said Ken Konsis, director of the conservation district.

The ground-breaking ceremony for phase one of the Kennekuk Environmental Education Center will be at 1 p.m. Sunday at the White Oak Barn area in Kennekuk County Park, 22296-A Henning Road, Danville. It's open to the public, and at the same site, there will also be a dedication of the Wheeler Foundation Nature Trail, which is a one-third-mile all-accessible trail built with a donation from the Wheeler Foundation.

Earlier this year, the conservation district received eight bids for the first part of the approximately $6 million, three-phase project. In this first phase, which could be complete in May, the contractor, English Brothers of Champaign, will build a 7,000-square-foot structure that will house offices, classrooms and restrooms. The final plan is a 32,000-square-foot structure that will include the 7,000 square feet of the first phase in addition to a roof prairie, museum room and timber-framed conference center with a capacity to seat 500 people.

For 40 years, the district's Outdoor School program has been teaching fourth- and fifth-graders throughout East Central Illinois about nature and conservation. Conservation district educators coordinate with area school districts to bus the students, each day for one week, to Kennekuk where they teach the class in a converted garage. Although the students spend a significant part of the week outdoors, the existing classroom is not adequately designed or spacious enough for the classroom portion.

For several years, the conservation district and its foundation have been raising money for this project. The most recent was a $1 million Open Space Land and Development grant for phase one construction from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. No local real-estate tax dollars or bonds will be used for the project.

In 2006, the Vermilion County Conservation District Foundation made it one of their capital projects and received a large donation for the preliminary architectural drawings and floor plans. Gordon Thoennes, chairman of the foundation board, said it was a $135,000 bequest from a will.

"That's when it really started going," Konsis said of the project.

Thoennes said it's a dream come true, and something that the district and foundation board believed in from the beginning although it was more difficult for others, because it's a very large project. But here we are, he said, breaking ground on the first phase. Thoennes said it's going to be great for the kids and outdoor school that has taught about 65,000 students through the years, operating out of a garage that leaks with no restrooms and no refrigeration for lunches. Now, he said, they will have a top-notch facility.

"It's really exciting," he said.

But conservation officials had to change up their plans this summer when bids for the first phase came in much higher than anticipated, with the lowest bid around $2.2 million. They were expecting the highest bids to be around $1.7 million, so with a limited amount of money for the first phase, Konsis said, the decision was made to push off some of the more expensive, non-essential items until phase two.

Once construction is finished next year, the district staff will move into the new facility and start hosting Outdoor School classes in the 2013-14 school year, Konsis said. In the meantime, fundraising and planning will continue for phases two and three, and Konsis said it will help the rest of the project to finally have phase one built.

"Until this (first phase) gets going, it's still an idea (to people)," he said.

Thoennes agrees. He said they've been talking about a picture, and now, they are finally going to be talking about a building.

"This has been a dream of Ken's for 30 years. To see his face when we knew we would break ground was worth every nickel," he said.

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