HANNA CITY — Brick by brick, Wildlife Prairie Park hopes to build a new legacy.
A new effort — the Bison Brick Paver Program — aims to raise money for park operations. But there’s more at stake than a fresh fundraiser: Park directors want to change their fundamental funding focus and transfer a third of the $1.5 million annual budget from corporate contributions to public donations.
And to do that, they face the challenge of increasing and sustaining mainstream interest and awareness regarding the nature preserve. Though encompassing 2,000 acres and serving central Illinois for more than 40 years, Wildlife Prairie Park too often seems like an afterthought to many area residents, says Mike McKim, one of two interim co-directors.
“We’ve been called a jewel of the Midwest,” McKim says. “We’ve also been the forgotten jewel of the Midwest.”
In part, that can be blamed on changing entertainment options and habits. At the same time, the park’s survivability — along phases as a private park, as a state park and as a not-for-profit park — might actually be a weakness. After all, the park always has gotten by, so what’s the problem?
The answer is simple: finances. Funding sources must change to allow long-term stability.
“We’re going through a transitional period,” McKim says. “We’re refocusing where the funding is coming from.”
That’s not a hope. It’s a necessity.
In 1978, philanthropist William Rutherford opened Wildlife Prairie Park to promote conservation, education and recreation. The park is a unique mix of a zoo (bison, cougar, elk and many other animals) and a sprawling nature preserve, a combination found nowhere else in Illinois and in only a few other spots nationally. Upon opening, it quickly became a popular spot for school-class field trips and, later, for wedding receptions and other gatherings.
The park was maintained by the Rutherford-affiliated Forest Park Foundation, which largely depended on donations (largely from corporations) to keep operations running. Then as now, grants are sometimes available for special projects (such as capital improvements) but never for operations.
In 2000, the park went under the auspices of the state. Staff at the preserve — renamed Wildlife Prairie State Park — saw state funding as a way to maintain operations year after year. Indeed, as late as 2008 — two years after the death of Rutherford — the park got $828,000 in state funding. But no state money was earmarked the following year. In 2010, the park was told it again would get no state backing, one of many continued cutbacks during harsh budget times in Springfield.
Later that year, Friends of Wildlife Prairie Park was formed as a 501(c)(3) to run the preserve, which no longer would have “state” in its name or funding. Again relying on corporate donations, the park pushed along on a $1.5 million annual budget, the same figure as today.
In general, the public has not closely followed this ownership saga. On a nearly daily basis, park officials hear questions like, “Who owns you?” and “How much state money do you get?” In other words, people believe the park is funded by either a deep-pockets owner or a taxpayer-supported appropriation — neither of which is true.
“The park doesn’t survive without donations,” McKim says. “It never has; it never will.”
Meanwhile, the park has struggled with dwindling patronage. Attendance peaked in 1986 at almost 179,000, a figure nearly repeated in 1995. But by 2010, the number had dipped to 130,000. Last year’s total was 117,000.
Along the way, the park has tightened its belt. Its 2008 full-time workforce of 30 has been halved. To keep the operations humming, the park relies on a whopping 500 volunteers who contribute 30,000 hours of work per year.
“I don’t think there’s any organization in the community that can compare to that,” McKim says.
Volunteer coordinator Brad Windsor, who has worked with other organizations, says, “I’ve never seen a group this dedicated.”
Despite a faithful core of volunteers and visitors, park directors feel much of the target demographic has drifted away: Wildlife Prairie Park often goes unremembered as an entertainment option. Off-site, the staff often hears people say things like, “I went there as a kid. But I forgot it was there.”
Dave Brugger, the other interim co-director, says it’s a shame more people — especially kids — don’t spend more time at the preserve, particularly during an era of increased safety worries.
“Kids today don’t have the opportunity to run in the woods,” Brugger says. “They don’t have an opportunity to play safely.”
To be sure, many children and others spend a lot of free time engrossed in video games and other screen distractions. But once newcomers begin to explore the grounds, something remarkable occurs: Nature takes over their attention, Brugger says.
“Nobody’s looking at their phones,” he says.
The park has diversified its offerings with special events. Some, like Halloween-time Wildlife Scary Park, have become local traditions. Meanwhile, in addition to hosting decades-long attractions like hiking and fishing, the park has added modern twists such as disc golf and a sledding hill. Furthermore, adding to lodging possibilities — which, intriguingly, already include rooms in cabooses and grain bins in addition to typical cabins — the park is building 14 more cabins.
All in all, the park has essentially pulled out all the stops to draw visitors and attention. But a financial hole nonetheless looms as imposing.
Two-thirds of the budget is covered by multiple income sources, including admissions, membership, catering and retail. To cover the remaining third, the $9 admission fee would have to skyrocket to $47 — an impossible demand.
In recent years, corporate donations have covered that chunk, $500,000 a year. But many of those donations are transitory: A corporation will give to one cause for a year or two, then move elsewhere as a way to share among the community. Thus, the park is always scrambling to find new corporate donors.
Plus, McKim says, many of those traditional corporate donors have increasingly expressed a desire to pause and access the park’s future viability. More succinctly, with attendance down, they would like to see a broader base of support — that is, more skin in the game from individuals — before earmarking further contributions to the park.
So, park directors are taking a two-prong approach to this dynamic:
* Corporate donations will be sought for as-needed capital improvements, such as was done for the ongoing, $2 million cabin project.
* Public support is to fill the annual $500,000 operational hole in the budget.
The latter is a tall order, but the park thinks the new Bison Brick Paver Program can reach that sum. Individuals and families are asked to make three-year commitment to pledge at least $250 annually. In exchange, each donor would have an inscribed brick placed at the park.
“Those will last,” McKim says. “Years from now, your grandchildren can come out here and see your name. That’d be neat.”
He pauses, then — still speaking about the bricks, though he might as well be making a wish for Wildlife Prairie Park — adds with a smile:
Information about participating in the Bison Brick Paver Program can be obtained by emailing email@example.com or writing to Wildlife Prairie Park, 3826 N. Taylor Road, Hanna City, IL 61536. Information about other donation possibilities can be found at http://wildlifeprairiepark.org/support-the-park/
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.