January 26, 2023

Conservation gets $400K in ARPA funds for education center

Van Zante provides supervisors with business plan showing its sustainability

Updated designs show what Jasper County Conservation's environmental education center may look like. Designs by Studio Melee.

Jasper County Conservation on Sept. 20 secured $400,000 in federal stimulus money for its proposed nature center and has now met the 60 percent funding threshold, making it eligible to apply for state grants to finish out the project that will serve as an educational tool and driver of economic development.

Coupled with the approximately $900,000 already raised for the environmental education center — sometimes called the nature center by county officials — the project could find matching funds to cover the remainder of the construction expenses. The project is currently estimated at $2.2 million.

In a 3-0 vote, the Jasper County Board of Supervisors agreed to provide $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to conservation after director Keri Van Zante provided a more detailed business plan, as requested at the Sept. 13 board meeting. Supervisors were concerned about long-term maintenance.

Van Zante said her staff will be primarily responsible for the day-today operation and maintenance of the environmental education center following its inevitable construction. This is similar practice at other conservation properties, but Van Zante said some maintenance chores are handled by volunteers.

In fact, mowing of the 250-acre Uhlenhopp Arboretum is entirely handled by a volunteer and has been since the park was unveiled a year ago. Other volunteers clean, do flatwork, conduct environmental education inside classrooms and at county parks, help with fundraisers and assist with the quarterly newsletter.

To break it down even further, Van Zante included a graph that says mowing, snow removal, custodial duties, driveway gravel and concrete sidewalk maintenance will be handled by conservation staff and/or volunteers.

Other maintenance items like paint and replacement of garage doors, deck railings, the roof, the HVAC system and solar array would be paid for through an endowment fund. Several of these items have a 20- to 30-year life cycle and would need to be replaced in the future. Luckily, the funding is there.

When the environmental education center is constructed, the Jasper County Conservation Board will continue to secure sponsors and donors for the facility. Van Zante notes sponsors will be sought for different kinds of work and could provide funding and ongoing required maintenance.

Furthermore, county conservation has a trust fund already in place that receives cash from donations, fundraisers and land rent, which will sustain the education center well into the future. Van Zante also states the facility will be available for rent for events such as meetings, weddings and banquets.

The building endowment currently has a balance of $93,000.

Updated designs show what Jasper County Conservation's environmental education center may look like. Designs by Studio Melee.

Assuming staff continues to raise $20,000 per year at fundraisers, the balance should be $400,000 after 20 years. Another way the center can get income is through crop ground rental. Van Zante said this money, currently at $222,000, could be utilized as a maintenance account or building endowment.

Renting the facility will be impactful, Van Zante’s plan states. If rental is $300 per day and it is rented 50 times per year, the center will have $15,000 per year at its disposal. There is also a group camping area available for rent. Assuming it is rented each weekend for $50, an additional $1,100 could be added.

Conservation board members have stated in the past the center is designed to operate off the grid as much as possible. Utilization of solar power will allow it so the facility has minimal utilities. Jasper County Supervisor Brandon Talsma said he is more concerned with the long-term maintenance rather than utilities.

Van Zante said, “It’s really hard to guess when things will go wrong and how much they will cost after 20 years.”

Talsma said he is concerned with the “ever increasing costs of government” and with honoring the past supervisors’ intentions with the environmental education center to have zero to minimal effect on taxpayers. Rather than worry about the costs of paint needed for touchups, he’s worried about bigger expenses.

Jasper County Supervisor Doug Cupples agreed with Talsma the center should be autonomous, to some degree. Although supervisors would ultimately vote for the dispersal, it was under the condition that if no match funding was acquired it would be put toward other conservation projects.

Van Zante noted there are other grant opportunities for conservation to apply for, such as Vision Iowa and Prairie Meadows grants.

“This kind of gets us to the point where we have enough match that we can ask for some of those bigger grants,” she said.

Talsma also proposed a 28E agreement be made between the conservation board and the county board of supervisors to ensure the revenues made from the environmental education center stay in conservation. The supervisor worried a future board may see the revenues and add it to the general fund.

At the Sept. 13 board meeting, the supervisors authorized the allotment of $450,000 for extensive bike trail repairs at Chichaqua Valley Trail from 108th Street to the Indian Creek Bridge outside Mingo and $400,000 for the modern campground additions at Mariposa Park.

The board’s decision on the center was effectively tabled until the next meeting, pending a business plan.

The state-of-the-art environmental education center is to be located on 40 acres of land, which is the park of the old county care facility. With 7,200 square feet of space and features like a display area, laboratory, classrooms and an outdoor viewing platform, the center provides space for public use in addition to staff use.

Updated designs show what Jasper County Conservation's environmental education center may look like. Designs by Studio Melee.

Also included in Van Zante’s business plan were the reasons why she and her staff want environmental education center and why it will benefit the public. Summarized, county conservation believes the center will:

• Provide conservation education and outdoor learning experiences to the public. Staff and volunteers already reach more than 15,000 people annually.

• Attract economic development and tourism opportunities. The center’s proximity to I-80 encourages visitors to explore other recreation or dine local restaurants.

• Promote conservation and sustainable living through photovoltaic cells, passive solar energy, geothermal and a living roof.

• Fulfill a conservation dream that is more than 30 years in the making. Conservation leaders have wanted a project that benefits youth and adults.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext 560 or at cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.