Archive for Sunday, September 19, 1999

RESIDENTS FLOCK TO NATURE CENTER

September 19, 1999

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Lawrence's newest park proves to be a popular attraction for children and parents.

Opening day at Lawrence's new Prairie Park Nature Center survived the usual number of last-minute glitches.

Air conditioning in the nature center's education room was not working properly. A public address system for the center's first guest speaker did not get delivered, and a light bulb burned out on a slide projector.

But none of that seemed to matter to the estimated 120 people who turned out Saturday for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and first day of activities at the new 71-acre park in southeast Lawrence.

"We think it's great," said Sally Hoffsommer-Brecheisen, who came from Baldwin with her two children, a friend, and her friend's two children.

For most of the afternoon, children ranging from toddlers to teen-agers roamed around the 5,500 square-foot nature center gazing at exhibits, petting the turtles, and even bringing in a few specimens of frogs and bugs to add to the indoor displays.

In fact, staff at the park have said, many of the live animals on display in the nature center have been collected by children playing just outside as the building was still under construction.

But for many children, the most popular display by far was not the ordinary bugs or frogs that any kid can find outside, but the mysterious and frightening snakes hissing and creeping behind glass cages.

Among those is a live timber rattler that proved to be the most intriguing for groups of kids who couldn't resist tapping on the glass to make the snake rattle its tail.

Usually, though, it didn't take long for a mother or older sibling to come pull the child away.

"I like the rattlesnake," said 9-year-old Sommer Brecheisen, standing beside her 7-year-old brother, Jesse, who shared her enthusiasm.

Around the corner, 6-year-old Willie Jordan and a friend were enthralled with a few of the many hands-on educational toys available for children. Willie had turned a coyote skull into a kind of makeshift puppet that he used to chase his friend's two large plastic beetles.

"It looks pretty hectic," Willie's mother said as she tried to keep track of where the boys had gone.

Despite the few minor glitches, staff at the Prairie Park Nature Center thought the day could not have gone better.

"I am absolutely amazed," park director Marty Birrell said of the turnout.

The park, just south of 27th and Harper streets, includes a seven-acre tract of virgin prairie preserved in its natural state, miles of hiking trails, and a fishing pond known as Mary's Lake.

The park has been in the planning and construction phase for more than a decade. According to city officials, the land was acquired in three separate parcels between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s at a time when the city had very few park facilities in the southeast area.

The city spent about $950,000 turning the land into a nature preserve with an on-site education center with funds from the city's share of a 1-cent countywide sales tax that voters approved in 1994.

-- Peter Hancock's phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is phancock@ljworld.com.

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