St. Paul’s Vento Nature Sanctuary getting chance to shine

The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, just east of downtown St. Paul, seems to be experiencing a bit of the Warhol-esque “15 minutes of fame.”

For starters, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office is hosting an exhibit of paintings about the site. Nationally, a cable TV network may soon feature the 27-acre park as one of its makeover projects, and the nature area has become a top priority in the city’s bonding request to lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session.

So, why all the fuss?

Site filled with history, geological significance
“It’s really an incredible, special site,” says Carol Carey, one of the sanctuary’s many citizen-stewards. “It sits along the Mississippi River. It’s like the ocean bottom that tells you where you are and where you came from. It’s got waves and waves of geological significance, not just of local history but national history.”

On a recent stroll through the grassy sanctuary, Carey and Zoe, her (leashed) Lab/husky mix, show me around the place. Carey points out a series of caves once considered sacred space for Dakota people. There are remnants of the commercial and industrial age, too, including the foundation from underground brewery storage. And in the ground, here and there, remain old ties from J.J. Hill’s railroad line.

Ecologically, the site is going gangbusters. A little plaque at the entrance shows the Audubon Society has deemed the sanctuary an “Important Bird Area.” About four years ago, money from the Environmental Pollution Agency cleared the site of many contaminants, such as asbestos and mercury, and volunteers began restoring its wetlands, prairie land and an oak savanna.

“The community has really been rallying around this site,” says Carey. “It’s come full circle.”

Over 10 years and more than $7 million in state, federal, and private money have gone into creating the Vento Sanctuary thus far. It needed a lot of work. And still does. The site’s recent past includes stints as an abandoned industrial wasteland, a homeless encampment, and a de facto furniture and appliance dump.

But, these days, thanks to dozens of community volunteers like Carey, the site is returning to its pre-industrial, semi-wild future.

With state help, city hopes to expand sanctuary
Early next year, the city of St. Paul will lobby the Legislature for $4.3 million, largely to expand the sanctuary by 2.5 acres, to build an interpretive center where children and families can learn about the site and riverfront ecology.

Carey estimates $5 million still is needed for the park’s continued restoration, which would include reforestation and the creation of a physical connection between the sanctuary and the riverfront.

Cable television could be the sanctuary’s next benefactor, of sorts, and keep the park on the road to remediation. The park is competing in a nationwide contest sponsored by HGTV’s “Change the World, Start at Home” initiative.

Winners of the contest will receive the human resources and financial support needed for each makeover project. Nine cities across the country (including St. Paul) are vying for four winning spots. Anyone can vote early and often (once a day, actually!) for a favorite project. The deadline for voting is Friday, Dec. 21.

The sanctuary also recently became the muse of several Lowertown St. Paul artists. A special showing of these sanctuary-inspired paintings is open through Friday during business hours in the mayor’s City Hall office.

When you finally find the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary (it’s easy if you know where to look), it seems like a strange spot for a park. It’s in the middle of the city, surrounded on all sides by towering freeways. A working rail line blocks its connection to the river, and there’s an abandoned building to boot. But as you walk deeper into the sanctuary, you soon appreciate its charms and why so many people are pushing for its continued health and revitalization.

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