Roger Chernik’s face brightens when he remembers how his 5-year-old daughter, Anne Chernik, crouched close to the ground lifting up rocks in his backyard looking for bugs.
In 1984, girls were supposed to think bugs were icky. But Anne didn’t, thanks to what she learned in an environmental education class at the River Bend Nature Center, he said.
This is when Chernik, of Mount Pleasant, began to have an emotional attachment to River Bend. He no longer thought of the 80-acre parcel as just a place to go cross-country skiing. The property, which embraces the Root River, became a magical place to fall in love with nature, one that captured his family’s hearts.
But the facility, owned by the YWCA, has fallen into disrepair and is barely operational. Now, Chernik is part of a five-person group, River Bend Nature Center Inc., that would like to take over operations but can't afford to buy the property outright. Still, Chernik hopes officials with Racine County will purchase the property so his group can lease it from them. But even though Chernik's group and officials with Racine County have talked about a possible lease, the fact remains that Racine County hasn't made an offer to purchase the Nature Center from the YWCA
Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig said officials with the YWCA had approached him about buying the property. The county does have about $600,000 it received from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, money earmarked for recreational and conservation land purchases along rivers.
But the county does not have the funds for or interest in operations, however, and Ladwig said it would need a leasing partner in place before considering a purchase.
“And before we did that, we’d need firm business plan, and they would need to operate it without county resources being involved,” Ladwig said.
Though River Bend Nature Center Inc is eager to be that partner, the YWCA said at this point, neither the county or any other group has formally offered to purchase the property.
“Right now we’re waiting,” Chernik said. “We have no definite timeframe, but we want to be ready if we’re needed.”
Upkeep 'practically non-existent'
Several Caledonia residents said there’s a definite need for someone to come in and operate the facility.
Sue Schuit, who lives nearby, said she runs through River Bend a lot. In December, she said the garbage dumpsters were overflowing and had been for months.
“In the last month or so it has gotten horrendous. The YWCA owns it, but the upkeep is practically non-existent,” Schuit said.
Schuit quit complaining about the garbage to officials with the YWCA, but that’s because she said they were hard to reach.
Melissa Warner, a retired science teacher who taught at St. Catherine’s High School, said she used to bring her students there on field trips.
“I know a lot of teachers who don’t take their students there anymore for field trips,” Warner said. “Field trips are expensive for schools. When the teachers can tell the naturalist doesn’t know what they are talking about, then it’s not worth the time or money to go. They need to know the information fits in with their lesson plans and that wasn’t happening, so school groups stopped attending the programs.”
But River Bend was more than just a place to bring students, it was a place where you sat around a campfire at night and listened to frogs, the place you took your child to summer camp, and a place to watch maple syrup being made in the early spring.
“The Sierra Club used to meet there. The Audubon Society used to meet there. If someone had a wounded animal, they would say, ‘Well someone at River Bend will know what to do,’” Warner said. “It was sort of a hub for anyone that wanted to learn about nature.”
Warner and Schuit aren’t part of Chernik’s group, but they said they would like to see the facility operating again.
Chernik's unwavering affection for River Bend is why he is crusading for the facility to become fully operational again. He and the others have researched the cost of operating the nature center, developed an operational plan and a Power Point presentation, and they are willing to talk to anyone they can to drum up support for their project.
With those special memories in mind, Chernik said his group wants to be ready to recreate River Bend as a nature center that has credibility, to rebuild what the YWCA had 20 to 30 years ago and make the center sustainable. The operational plan includes hiring an executive director with a strong business focus and a certified naturalist to keep the focus on environmental education.
“We’d like to see River Bend continue operating as a nature center — the way it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” Chernik said. “We want it to become a jewel for Racine County and we believe it has a huge potential.”
But until someone convinces the county — or someone else — of that and buy the property, they are just five people with a plan who love River Bend.