The Community’s Park

by Sam Schafer
Wildlife Prairie Park

Recent changes have not swayed the park from its mission to inspire adventure.

Over the past year, Wildlife Prairie Park, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located just outside of Peoria, has seen many changes in development, management and overall community presence. In May of 2013, Governor Pat Quinn signed the documents that would remove the park from state ownership and return it to private ownership. One year later, Wildlife Prairie State Park has officially become Wildlife Prairie Park (WPP).

Since changing back to private ownership, WPP has seen around $3 million in improvements, including new attractions, maintenance and remodeling, and further park development. Even with all of these improvements underway, it’s important to note the park balanced its 2014 fiscal-year budget for the second year in a row. Operating in the black gives it an opportunity to further develop a plan for the park’s future, where more attractions and improvements will be seen.

“We’ve been here for a while, but we’re new, we’re improved, and we’re encouraging everyone to come out and enjoy the park,” says Doug Dillow, executive director. ”We’re open year-round—and seeing the park through the different seasons is quite a sight to behold.”

Hands-On Opportunities
Among the newest projects in 2014 are the newly remodeled and expanded pioneer area and the Adventure Trek. The pioneer area is a petting farm at the north end of the park featuring domestic farm animals. Feeding stations at each exhibit offer guests the opportunity to really interact with the animals, but petting and feeding the animals isn’t the only excitement you’ll find in this area of the park. The pigs at the petting farm have also been trained to race! From the beginning of summer through late fall, park staff hosts races in which the pigs race to the finish line to get to tasty morsels.

Though it’s not a new attraction, the Adventure Trek is another popular new modification at the park. It did not run in 2013, and over the last year, the program went through some changes in route, narration and goals. Guests who board the Adventure Trek in the summer through early fall get the opportunity to experience the bison and elk herds up close. It begins with a tour of the park, followed by a chance to meet, pet and feed “Mike the Bison” and a drive through the bison and elk pasture, concluding with a chance to explore more of the park’s unique sites. “The Adventure Trek gives guests an opportunity to do something that cannot be done in the surrounding area—pet and feed a live bison,” says Mike McKim, director of operations. “This experience really gives guests exposure to our animals.”

Expanded Trails and Education
While these and other new attractions are increasing attendance and membership numbers, they are not the only things bringing people to Wildlife Prairie Park. Guests find that an overnight stay in the park’s unique lodging accommodations offers a secluded, serene experience for the nature lover within. Meanwhile, the west-side addition of the park is another large, up-and-coming area that provides extensive mountain biking trails and opportunities for hiking and fishing, as well as the new Bison Hump Pump Track, the only one of its kind within 100 miles. It offers bikers the challenge of riding a course without peddling, utilizing the rolling hills and turns throughout the course for natural acceleration.

The park has also expanded its education programming. Offering outreach opportunities to schools and booking school groups to visit has given the park a chance to really expand on the education portion of its mission. This outreach provides the organization a valuable platform to further its community presence and educational goals by sharing the park experience with guests outside the park through traveling animal and expert presentations. By promoting the park through outreach, people have turned their out-of-park experience into an in-park experience to come see the larger animals and experience everything the park has to offer.

For the Community
All of the improvements at Wildlife Prairie Park have been made possible by its supporters. Donations, memberships and sponsorships have all played a role in helping the park achieve its goals this past year. As a nonprofit organization, all the money that comes into the park goes into improving it. By improving the park year after year, Wildlife Prairie Park is able to provide a unique wildlife habitat in the Midwest that offers conservation, education and recreation for all to enjoy.

“The community needs to understand that Wildlife Prairie Park is their park. It is no longer a state park or the Rutherford family park—it is truly theirs,” says Will Williams, president of the Friends of Wildlife Prairie Park Board. “It is essential for its long-term economic sustainability that we respond to the community’s wants and needs, and as a result of our passion, the residents of central Illinois embrace it as their own. We know that is the successful formula; we just need to do a better job of communicating the message.” iBi

Sam Shafer is guest relations/membership coordinator at Wildlife Prairie Park. For more information, visit wildlifeprairiepark.org.

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