There’s no place in the area where you can have stare-down fights with bald eagles, watch a cougar nonchalantly lounge on a tree stump, or watch a badger make holes in the ground and peek up.
But for most people’s money, nothing beats watching a bear.
Especially during feeding time.
Layers of people crowded up to and around the caged area, standing on tippy-toes or jumping up and down. Prowling about as if on an Easter Egg hunt, the bear nosed around for peanut butter, fruit, corn, fish and other yummy things left in its living quarters by zoo staff. The bear was oblivious of the onlookers on an account of so many good treats to eat.
But Saturday’s Fall Fest was also about the future of the park and zoo. It was to kick-off the public portion of a $1 million fundraising campaign by the Friends of Oxbow, by far the biggest money raiser ever attempted by the non-profit. Since the nonprofit was founded in 1982, the organization has raised $750,000.
Caroline Ross, 5, of Rochester, bowls with a pumpkin during the Fall Fest Million Dollar Kick-Off Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo in Byron. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
“In our 40-year history, we’ve never done a fundraising campaign to this extent,” said Kris Nelson, FOX’s vice president.
The fundraiser will pay for classroom technology, biome exhibits and zoo animals that will be featured in a new, $8 million nature center.
“While (Olmsted County) got a lot of grant funding, and is generously funding the construction of the building, the actual displays, the exhibits, those tangibles that kids can touch and feel – that’s covered by most of the million dollars,” Nelson said.
The center, when it opens in 2022, will nearly triple the space of the old center, offering a total of 13,000 square feet of classroom, exhibit and staff space. It will feature an exhibit hall, displays showcasing the geology, flora and fauna of the region, and areas for exploratory play.
Landscaping and prairie restoration to include the wildflowers, butterflies, birds, bees and other species native to the area will also be covered by the donations.
The goal is to connect more people to the outdoors, as well as to offer expanded programming to showcase the region’s natural wonders.
“We not only hope to host more students here for naturalist-led programs, but we hope to hold more classes here for families and students on the weekends and evenings,” Nelson said.
Kaesen Miller, 7, of Dodge Center, carries a hay bale in an obstacle course during the Fall Fest Million Dollar Kick-Off Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo in Byron. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
The construction of the new center itself is funded largely by a combination of bonds issued by Olmsted County and Minnesota Legacy funds. Legacy funds are generated through sales taxes that were approved by Minnesota voters in 2008.
Like almost all other organizations, the pandemic has been a disruptive event for FOX. Saturday’s Fall Fest, the first of its kind, was the first event Friends of Oxbow has been able to host in nearly two years. Its annual Christmas-themed ZooDazzle fundraiser was canceled last year due to COVID, and it won’t be held this year because of construction on the center.
So far, more than 250,000 has been raised, one-fourth of the way to FOX’s goal. Saturday’s kick-off was aimed at fixing the one-million goal in people’s minds.
The Fall Fest Million Dollar Kick-Off Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo in Byron. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
“We thought we needed to have a fall kickoff, because we need to keep this in the spotlight for the next year,” said Barb Jensen, a FOX board member and former president.
The park draws nearly 400,000 visitors a year, officials say, with about 15,000 attending public programs and events in the nature center in 2019, along with 11,000 students for field trips.
On Saturday, parents and their kids roamed the park, playing Pumpkin Bowling, running obstacle courses and having their faces painted. But the bear seemed the featured attraction.