John, Hawj: Make the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary a destination
By Sheldon Johnson and Foung Hawj
Rep. Sheldon Johnson and Sen. Foung Hawj represent St. Paul’s East Side in the Minnesota Legislature.
Posted: 02/07/2013 12:01:00 AM CST
Updated: 02/07/2013 05:36:13 PM CST

The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary Cultural Center is a hidden jewel in St. Paul.

The size of 27 football fields on the edge of downtown, this city park is not only full of Minnesota history, it is a wondrous world of ecology with towering bluffs, prairies, wetlands and a cave that is sacred to the Dakota. Remnants and artifacts from Minnesota’s early rail and brewing industries, and its importance to diverse immigrant groups, add to its rich cultural significance.

You are not alone if you have never ventured to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Opened to the public in 2005, it remains isolated. Close to downtown’s bustling Lowertown district, the sanctuary is separated by parking lots and industrial land. Fortunately, with revitalization and change coming to the eastern edge of downtown St. Paul, there is an opportunity to realize the full potential of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

Step one: Connect the sanctuary to Lowertown.

The new Lowertown ballpark will be mere yards from the sanctuary, and connecting the two holds great promise. This connection must be planned carefully and include a prominent bicycle and pedestrian trail to improve access from the heart of Lowertown. The new ballpark should serve as a gateway to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and other destinations to the east.

Step two: Create a multi-faceted cultural center here.

St. Paul’s Great River Passage Master Plan designates the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary

as one of a handful of priority “Gathering Places” along the Mississippi River. However, with no infrastructure, it is difficult to gather there.
A four-story, city-owned warehouse at the sanctuary entrance can become the gathering place the area needs. The structurally-sound building “shell” can be redeveloped as a multi-faceted center that celebrates the area’s American-Indian and Asian-Pacific culture, in addition to early St. Paul history, food, ecology and the arts. The space would be used for organizations, activities and events. Now an eyesore, a rehabilitated center can become a job-creating, vibrant spot where people can learn about the park, attend cultural events and enjoy stunning views of the river corridor and the downtown skyline.

St. Paul Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit Lower Phalen Creek Project have conducted initial planning, surveyed public support and developed cost estimates. The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary itself has attracted national funding and acclaim, and more than $800,000 has already been raised and invested in purchasing the building site and cleaning up contaminated soils in the area.

The eastern edge of downtown St. Paul is a place where things are happening. Together, we must work to make sure that when the dust has settled, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is newly connected and improved — no longer a hidden gem, but a culturally rich destination that attracts people from around the region and beyond.