Letter to the Editor

The Conservation Board's uphill battle

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I can't "NOT" respond to the KUOO news story concerning the Dickinson County Nature Center. I have been a member of the Dickinson County Conservation Board for nearly 20 years, and have never, during that time, been involved in such an uphill battle. I would like to clarify a couple of items pointed out in the news release dated May 28, 2009.

The Nature Center project actually started in the 1980s with the Kenue Management Area project. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation did a master plan in those days, and a series of planning meetings took place among groups including the Okoboji Foundation, Dickinson County Conservation Board, Lakes Art Center, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Okoboji Summer Theater, the Dickinson County Trails Association, and others.

Architectural work, including a rough plan and cost estimate was done by LHB and Associates in 2002. At approximately that same time, the goals and objectives of the Conservation Board were re-visited through a visioning process facilitated by the Iowa State Extension Service, and another series of public meetings. One of the priorities coming out of that planning process was the Dickinson County Nature Center.

Over the next several years, with the efforts of the Dickinson County Conservation Foundation, the building, formerly the Back Porch Restaurant, was moved onto the Kenue area, and a great amount of volunteer planning and labor was and is being expended. A great amount of thanks is due the foundation for their never-ending commitment and their ongoing efforts. Through these efforts, grants have been secured from the Messengers of the Healing Winds Foundation and the Okoboji Foundation for the exterior parts of the project and utility construction. A huge thank you to the Healing Winds Foundation and the Okoboji Foundation for their support.

The remaining contract to finish the electrical, mechanical and interior construction of the building and actually make it habitable will cost approximately $817,000. Of this amount, a little over $500,000 is in place. From the news articles, it sounds like the Conservation Board was blind sided by these numbers, when the facts are:

1. CMBA architects were blamed for delays in the project, which is unfortunate and not entirely true. The majority of the delays came from the county asking for more detail and more detailed cost estimates.

2. The Conservation Board did not have the total amount in the budget, because the Board of Supervisors would not allow us to do so. The Conservation Board did propose $900,000 in this fiscal year budget, offset by a loan for the remaining $300,000 -$400,000. The proposed payments were to have been funded by the Board's annual revenues from REAP, annual land acquisition funds, and the foundation's fund raising efforts. But, the Board of Supervisors cut that amount from the FY '10 budget before approving it, and stated that the support for the project would come from other County Funds.

3. Once again, after receiving bids, and having a firm price; John Walters, the DCCB Director, and members of the Conservation Board requested that the board be allowed to earmark funds from the REAP account and future acquisition funds, to pay off a loan to FINISH the project. Once again the Board of Supervisors said NO! This was viewed as a "slap in the face" by some of the supervisors, but it is certainly not a new idea, and it certainly would be cheaper than spending even more architectural time to split the remaining project into two or three pieces.

4. The Board of Supervisors was frustrated with the lack of a business plan, yet one of our Conservation Board members presented a plan to the supervisors in the February budgeting session outlining where the project was, time lines, how we planned on continuing to fund the project, etc. And a "copy of such a plan was given to KUOO news, that was actually dated 2005." I get the impression that the supervisors, for the most part, have neglected to read this information.

5.A statement was made that the county would be providing "in-kind" funding such a salaries, utilities, insurance and so on. There is nothing "IN-KIND" about the Nature Center. The employees are county employees, the insurance is for a county owned building, and the utilities are a requirement placed on all landowners that want to keep the heat and lights on.

6. A statement was made that the county had other commitments. I'm assuming that these are like $100,000 to the Lakeside Lab for microscopes, support of the Lake Park Wellness Center, the YMCA, the Art Center, etc. These are all worthwhile projects, and valuable assets to the County Community, however, they are NOT county-owned projects. The Nature Center is!

7. The supervisors are disappointed in the Conservation Board for not providing the basis for funding the Nature Center. While the Conservation Foundation has done a wonderful job seeking out grants, providing fund raising events like the "Green Wave" festival, and looking for donations for the nature center; the Conservation Board is not a "fund raising" entity. Did Sheriff Baloun "fund- raise" for the county jail, or did Dan Eckert, the county engineer, fund-raise for the county maintenance garages?

In the face of all of this frustration, I can guarantee this. The Nature Center will be completed, hopefully sooner than later. The conservation programs in Dickinson County will continue, including the educational programs that impact a tremendous number of school age youth. AND the Conservation Board will continue to be the "unwanted step child of the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors." I do think that it would be much easier for the supervisors to admit, however, that they have been, as stated by a gentleman far wiser than I, "Tepid" at best toward the Nature Center.

Respectfully Submitted,

Ron Walker

Conservation Board Member