A deal is on the table between Myrick Hixon EcoPark and the city of La Crosse.
The park’s future has been a turbulent issue in La Crosse since the Myrick Park Zoo was shut down years ago to make room for construction.
The deal, which still has to be approved by City Council, would allow the park to keep operating on city land for the next decade.
That means the park would be able to start a major fundraising campaign to finish the four “playscapes” already under construction.
La Crosse resident Jordan Raether took a pause in his morning run to look at the signs in the EcoPark mapping out the site’s future plans. He remembers when this used to be Myrick Park Zoo.
"It was like a hidden gem, walking down here with friends, and we discovered there was a zoo right here and it was sort of unbelievable," said Raether.
But back in 2007, the bears and monkeys were moved out of their home to make room for the EcoPark.
"City and state funding wasn't there to continue to operate a zoo. The habitat that was here was not very well taken care of,” said Jean Chromey, the EcoPark’s new executive director. “The city chose to close the zoo and the vision of an EcoPark became apparent."
Instead of the zoo, four new playscapes are in the works -- Wild Water, Forest Scramble, Farm Play and Prairie Mystery. Each integrates hands-on play with lessons about nature.
But the cash flow has stalled.
All city and state funding for the EcoPark dried up this year.
"People are wanting to see something done. It's been a while since there's been some construction and things going on here,” said Chromey, “We needed to have a long-term lease with the city before we felt we could go out and start raising funds to continue the construction."
The EcoPark has come to a tentative 10-year land-use deal with city park officials, which still has to be agreed on by council.
While some La Crosse residents like Raether are excited to see it become a reality, he's frustrated visitors to the new attractions will have to pay admission when the zoo used to be free.
"I'm sort of irritated about the cost that it would be to come here,” said Raether. “But the cost you pay can also produce an income to put back into Myrick Park. And so hopefully what we put back into it, the reward we get is going to be greater.”
The EcoPark plans to open up the Wild Water and Forest Scramble playscapes this summer. For a time, there will be no admission charge for those two.
But once the full expansion is complete, visitors will have to pay to play.
The goal is to have the EcoPark fully operational by 2017, but Chromey said depending on how much funding it gets, the grand opening could be a full year earlier.
The proposed agreement between the EcoPark and the city of La Crosse still has to go through several committees over the next two weeks. The City Council is scheduled to make the final vote on the deal on May 9.