A $20 million, three-phase renovation of Glen Ellyn's Willowbrook Wildlife Center will begin by Labor Day.
Recent approval by the village board cleared the way for the first $3.6 million phase of the project that will include a larger parking lot and improved service building for the center at 525 S. Park Blvd.
Site manager Sandy Fejt said the current 53-space parking lot will nearly double to accommodate 95 vehicles and be made of permeable pavers. That work should be completed by winter.
"Parking was our most immediate need because any time we have large programs and special events, we're leaning on our great neighbors at St. James the Apostle to use their lot," Fejt said. "This will allow us to continue our programming without relying on them."
Fejt said about 120,000 "casual" visitors come through the facility annually, to walk the outdoor trail and see the indoor exhibits that house as many as 86 animals with permanent disabilities, or read to their children in the treelike reading nook.
Improvements to the service area will stretch into the spring and include a renovated storage garage and a designated holding area to temporarily house birds that are brought in for care.
Since 1958, Fejt said, Willowbrook has treated injured and orphaned wildlife and served as an education center to learn about "the critters that live in all of our backyards."
The center treats about 8,600 birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and even insects that are brought in by concerned citizens.
"We once had an opossum that was struck by a car and killed but a good Samaritan dug around in the pouch to save the babies and bring them in," Fejt said. "I don't know that I would have done that, myself, but people go to great lengths to protect all of our critter friends."
Animals that can be treated and rehabilitated are released back into DuPage County forest preserves. Those that would not survive being released are housed at the center and occasionally sent to other centers across the country to limit overcrowding.
Already this year the center has accepted more than 1,000 injured birds from the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, a volunteer group that patrols the sidewalks under Chicago's skyscrapers during migrations.
Fejt said the center has been bursting at the seams for several years and, three years ago, money was set aside in the DuPage County Forest Preserve District's capital funds budget to begin the upgrades.
The remaining two phases, however, will cost upward of $16 million to build an addition dedicated to interpretive exhibits and upgrade the rehabilitation center. The third phase is expected to include a new outdoor exhibit area.
"Fundraising will come first and then we're going to have to get creative," Fejt said. "We're hoping to eventually make a push to get some help from corporate sponsors to make the rest of this project a reality."