Washington Park: Ready to Blossom!

Written by Beth Heller
    Monday, 23 December 2013
Washington Park: Ready to Blossom!

Can you believe it’s been only seven years since we hired our first staff member to start up our Washington Park branch? The growth there has been amazing! With the start of a new year, we, like many of you, are reflecting on the past and thinking about our plans for the year ahead. These two perspectives, hindsight and anticipation, seemed like the best way to give an update on our Washington Park branch! Wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It all started with...

Fertile ground: Just as a seed needs the right conditions to grow, so did the launch of our Washington Park branch. In 2004 we were still working out of a double wide trailer in Riverside Park and faced demands for our services that we could not fit into our 1300 square foot space. While we were super excited to move into our new Riverside Park building, we also hoped to find a use for our old trailer. We could see a need across the city for kids to have the kinds of outdoor learning experiences that are so important for childhood development and help build the foundation of knowledge about how the world around us works. So we thought let’s “recycle” the trailer by filling this need in another neighborhood park.

With that idea in mind, next we had to figure out where to carry it out. We made a list of criteria for a good location for this entrepreneurial concept of relocating the trailer. The ideal park would:

  • Have a high density of schools surrounding it
  • Have easy walking or biking access for many people
  • Be in a neighborhood that was interested in our services
  • Be a green space with trees, fields and a body of water to support a variety of education programs
  • Be in an area with a high crime rate. Since we knew our programs had the effect of reducing crime and making a park safe to use from our experience in Riverside Park, we were also looking for a location where we could double our impact.

As we explored locations, we engaged a team of UWM geography graduate students to do an analysis of Milwaukee neighborhoods using these criteria. Their research put Washington Park at the top of the list.

In the summer of 2005, we were invited to a meeting at the Washington Park Pavilion where a coalition of community organizations, including Neighbors United for Washington Park, Washington Park Beat, Lisbon Area Neighborhood Development Corp, Washington Heights Neighborhood Association and Washington Park Partners, asked us to consider opening a branch at Washington Park. With the support of the neighborhood and the great data from our graduate student team we began the process of creating our first branch.

The seed: Just as a seed has all the materials and plans for what the plant will become, we needed a plan for our new branch. Luckily, a team of Beth’s business school colleagues at UWM were ready to take on that challenge as their final business plan project. That plan was brought to the board and leadership of the Center, refined and made ready for investors.

Energy: Just like a plant needs sunlight, a new venture needs financial support to grow. Five visionary funding partners invested in this project: the Harley-Davidson Foundation, Miller Brewing Company, the Trinity Foundation, the Windhover Foundation, and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. These investors provided start-up funds, giving the Center time to build strategies for long term sustainability. Another critical partner was Milwaukee County Parks, whose land provides the necessary setting for our activities. The County Parks department was excited to bring the Center’s activities to Washington Park, but not at all excited about our little run-down trailer. They offered us the park’s pavilion -- a facility much better than the trailer -- which had running water, bathrooms, a kitchen, more space and amazing views of the beautiful lagoon. From an eco-friendly perspective, we couldn’t get much greener than using an existing building. So we signed a lease to use 1/3 of the building, a space three times the size of our trailer.

Summer camp at Washington ParkWater: Our aim is for children to develop and bring ecological literacy into the future, just as water carries nutrients to support a plant’s future growth. The Neighborhood Environmental Education Project for schools consistently brings more children through our doors than any other program. Because we work with neighboring schools, those students become familiar with the park and return after school for outdoor play and exploration. We filled the school program quickly in Washington Park: the fertile ground we selected was well suited for our school partnership program. Demand for the school program was so high, we began sharing education staff from Riverside Park so more children could flow through our doors.

Growth: The school program was like the “shoot” of a plant, providing strength for our new branch. Soon the emerging demand for after school and weekend programs was greater than were able to provide. So, we spread our leaves and launched our community programs, including the Young Scientists Club, lecture series, family programs and more.
This brings us to today. There is a tight “bud” waiting to burst at Washington Park. What it needs is the last key ingredient to survival: space. With only one classroom, we were not yet ready to fully blossom.
On November 7, 2013, the Milwaukee County Board voted unanimously in support of a five-year lease agreement with the Urban Ecology Center to allow 24/7 full use of the entire Washington Park Pavilion. What does this mean for the community of Washington Park and for operations here at the Urban Ecology Center? Lots!

1) Extended Hours! We are particularly excited to be more available to visitors. Beginning on January 2, 2014, the Urban Ecology Center’s public hours will be extended to 12pm – 6pm, Tuesday through Friday. Saturday remains the same: 9am - 5pm. Opportunities for members to borrow our lending equipment, visit Lake Wisconsin, the animal room and get warm in our facility will increase. We’d love for you to stop by to visit us, explore the park, or enjoy a mug of hot coffee.

2) A More Welcoming Entrance! No more confusion finding our front door; we are moving the entrance to the east door of the building. This is the door you see when you walk up the service drive from our parking lot off of 40th Street, with an awning announcing “Urban Ecology Center.” Walk in and you will see our new front desk with Visitor Services Specialist, Terrance Davis, ready to greet you and show you around.

3) Rent the Pavilion! Starting in January, you will be able to rent the Washington Park building through the Urban Ecology Center facility rental program. Rent out a portion of the Washington Park branch for any of your special events and you will be able to experience the magic of this space. The building rental options include a kitchen, a large room with a stage and our more intimate “welcome” room. Please contact Robert Miller at 414-964-8505 ext 156, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for further information.

4) Additional Programming! Another critically important benefit of leasing the entire building is our ability to schedule additional activities in Washington Park. From increasing participation in our school partnership program, hosting more B’earthday parties, and increasing the number of youth, family and adult programs, we will be able to engage more people than ever before.

This is why our new lease is so incredibly exciting. It is a joyful moment because we will have the space we need to truly blossom. We have been anticipating this change for more than two years and the wonderful, deep engagement of the community has pushed us to this moment.

But expanding our programs means that we need your help! There has never been a better time to volunteer here at Washington Park. We offer individual, school and group opportunities, from volunteering at the front desk, to serving on the Center’s Washington Park Advisory Committee, to large scale land stewardship projects. The possibilities are diverse, and volunteers provide a necessary role in our operations. If you are interested in volunteering, please plan to attend one of our volunteer orientations at any one of our branches. Then the fun begins!

This is truly a thrilling time for Washington Park. We look forward to going on this new, sensational journey together.

This article was cowritten by Beth Heller, Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning and Willie Karidis, Branch Manager - Washington Park

Beth Heller

Beth Heller

Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning, Beth received her Masters in Business Administration from UW-Milwaukee in 2005, where she received the Outstanding Business Plan award for a plan to launch a branch of the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park. She graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in 1994 with a B.A. degree in Biology and Education. Beth began working at the Urban Ecology Center in 2000 to combine her love of the city with her appreciation of nature. Beth loves to sail, bike, sing and hike.

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