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A Tree Sanctuary Grows in Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum opens to the public

Sep. 25, 2013
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It can be called an outdoor classroom, a children’s forest or 40 acres of natural sanctuary just a mile from Downtown.

But the new Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum adjacent to the Urban Ecology Center’s Riverside Park location is perhaps best called a gift to the whole community for generations to come.

The newly created arboretum will be unveiled to the public on Saturday, Sept. 28, with a grand opening celebration from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The celebration tops off more than five years of collaborating, fundraising and the creative thinking of those who could envision transforming industrial land overlooking the Milwaukee River into an urban arboretum, complete with paved and gravel trails, an artful stone archway, easy access to the 878-acre Milwaukee River Greenway and 12 distinct ecosystems with 3,000 new trees, 9,000 new shrubs and 60,000 new plants. In all, it’s estimated that more than 2,000 volunteers offered up 12,000 hours of their time to pitch in.

The landscape is so utterly changed that it even has new soil, created from scratch with composted leaves deposited by the city and turned over every so often to create topsoil.

“The land is old industrial land,” said Ken Leinbach, the Urban Ecology Center’s executive director. “We certainly couldn’t have grown a forest on it.”


A Vision Is Realized

The arboretum, now open to the public, began with separate but synergistic conversations among Milwaukee leaders.

One conversation took place years ago between Leinbach and the center’s neighbor, historic preservationist Pieter Godfrey. Godfrey told Leinbach he wanted to donate four acres of his land in honor of a friend who loved trees. Leinbach was feeling pressured by the growth of the Urban Ecology Center. Riverside Park, which the center uses as its 15-acre outdoor classroom, simply wasn’t large enough for the tens of thousands of kids who discovered the wonders of nature there through the center’s programs.

Leinbach and Godfrey thought an arboretum would be a perfect solution.

The partners would rehabilitate the land, then offer it to Milwaukee County to become part of the parks system.

Around the same time, the 400 members of the Milwaukee Rotary Club were discussing a gift they wanted to give to the community to celebrate their centennial anniversary in 2013.

Godfrey and Leinbach’s arboretum idea “captured our imaginations,” said the Rotary Club of Milwaukee’s executive director, Mary McCormick, because it matched the organization’s mission to preserve and restore the environment and invest in kids and education.

“The Urban Ecology Center and the arboretum really brought those two important interests together,” McCormick said.

The Rotarians pledged to raise $400,000 for the project. That donation in turn became the seed money for the more-than-$8 million endeavor. In addition to contributions from individual Rotarians, major donations came from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a generous anonymous donor, the Walton family and others. Godfrey’s $2 million land donation was bittersweet; he passed away in 2011, amid the arboretum’s conception.

“When Pieter passed away he still owned the land,” McCormick said. “But the family honored his vision and his commitment to this and ensured that the land was donated as Pieter wanted. People have really been motivated to ensure that Pieter’s vision is realized.”

The River Revitalization Foundation, which was founded by the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis, was designated as the land trust for the project and assembled the parcels that built on Godfrey’s initial donation. Rotarian Dan Davis, a senior vice president at CG Schmidt, earned high praise from McCormick and Leinbach for serving as the volunteer coordinator for the project.

Not all of the Rotarians’ contribution has gone to the construction of the arboretum. McCormick said $100,000 has seeded a preservation fund so that the property can be maintained on an ongoing basis. The fund is now flush with $750,000 in donations, but the arboretum’s supporters hope to reach $1 million by year’s end and have a long-term goal of reaching $3 million. Leinbach said every contribution is welcome.


‘A Magical Place’

The arboretum is a work in progress, since it will take up to 50 years for the trees to mature and the land to sustain itself. Now, the seedlings poke out from the soil and workers are putting the finishing touches on the parcel’s amenities. Features include hidden activities for kids, part of the arboretum’s function as a USDA Forest Service Children’s Forest, one of only 22 in the country.

The entrance is an archway designed by Rotarian Mario Costantini, who said he wanted it to look primitive and perhaps built by those who constructed Stonehenge. The upside-down necklace of stones, gathered from around the state, is a mix of permanence, fragility and wonder.

“I intentionally wanted it to look like it could fall over any minute,” Costantini said. “I thought there would be some appeal in that, especially for kids, like, ‘How did they do that?’”

The simple design was so complicated that Costantini had a difficult time finding experts who could turn his vision into reality. Engineer Susan Lasecki designed the interior infrastructure while stoneworker Nicholas Tomkins located the stones, shaped them, and assembled them first in his workspace in Madison and then again in the arboretum.

“I did not accept that we couldn’t build this,” Costantini said.

Kimberly Gleffe, executive director of the River Revitalization Foundation, said the arboretum provides a gateway to the treasures within the Milwaukee River valley, which is enjoying a renaissance due to years of restoration and remediation work.

“The fact that you can get to 800 acres of greenspace along the river, a mile from Downtown, is amazing,” Gleffe said. “It’s the first project of its kind in Milwaukee. It’s also a catalytic project that can be held up as a model to other cities.”

The Urban Ecology Center’s Leinbach promised that there are “a lot of cool things coming down the pike,” including tours conducted by volunteer docents who have detailed knowledge of the arboretum.

“And long term, we hope that this is one of those magical places for kids growing up in the neighborhood and will be part of the process of creating their sense of place,” Leinbach said. “It’s their place. And when they’re growing up it will be the place where they can learn to love and respect the natural environment. And it’s right here in the middle of the city.”

For more information about the Rotary Centennial Arboretum and its grand opening celebration, go to urbanecologycenter.org.


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