Biggest hurdle to proposed environmental education center cleared with $2 million donation

An anonymous donation of $2 million is a huge boost for a proposed "net zero" educational facility at the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area near Riverwoods.

The donation - said to be the second largest gift in the 63-year history of the Lake County Forest Preserve District - is from the same source that provided seed money nearly two years ago.

"That $200,000 gift allowed us to begin and get all the way to this point in the design process for the building," said Rebekah Snyder, director of community engagement and partnership. "It was just an idea then."

Pending final details, the $2 million donation for construction nearly assures the district will be able to proceed in spring with the $4.6 million first phase of the project.

"It's a big step but not the last step," Snyder said of the pending donation. Other donations also are being pursued, she added.

In an inkling of what was to come, district officials in early June shifted $2 million in capital funds to match grants or donations.

The district also has applied for a $530,000 grant from the Clean Energy Community Foundation, which is expected to be considered in January.

"We're feeling pretty optimistic, put it that way," Snyder said.

Forest commissioners in July approved a $573,725 contract with Texas-based Lake Flato Architects to produce construction-ready plans for an environmental education center.

The first phase includes: two classrooms; a screened porch to serve as a third classroom when weather permits; a half-mile, fully accessible education loop trail; minor realignment of the existing road to add two bus parking spaces; and educational signage and exhibits focusing on sustainability aspects of the new building, according to Randy Seebach, director of planning and land preservation.

The new center would replace two log cabins and other outdated facilities as part of a $7 million project to be built in two stages. It's designed as a net-zero energy building, meaning it would produce enough renewable energy to power itself.

"That remains even more important today than in 2020," Snyder said.

Before the pandemic, about 10,000 students annually participated in educational programs at Ryerson.

The $2 million donation was to the Preservation Foundation of the Lake County Forest Preserves, organized in 2007. It is the largest gift to that entity and the second-largest to the district overall.

The biggest was the 1996 contribution of 261 acres by Lake Forest-based W.W. Grainger Inc. The district purchased additional property to create the 329-acre Grainger Woods near Mettawa.

According to the district website, the contribution at the time was valued at $14 million. That would equate to about $8.6 million at the current rate of $33,000 per acre, Snyder said.

The Lake County Forest Preserve District received a $2 million anonymous donation toward construction of a proposed educational center at the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods. The "net-zero" energy building would generate enough renewable energy to power itself. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserve District
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