The Wilder Foundation intends to sell 600 acres of land in northern Washington County to a Catholic organization that plans to open an overnight summer camp and winter retreat center on the site.
The Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership plans to use the former Wilder Forest land, currently leased by the River Grove charter school, to host 200 middle-school campers a week during the summer.
River Grove officials called the news of the proposed sale “extremely disappointing” and said it would “be devastating to our school and the larger community.”
The K-6 school, known officially as Marine Area Community School, is housed in several cottages that used to be leased by Concordia Language Villages. River Grove officials were working with officials from the Manitou Fund, which owns the adjacent land – the site of the now-shuttered Warner Nature Center — on a plan to purchase the land. Manitou Fund officials had several opportunities to purchase the land, but declined, according to Wilder.
The Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership will use the land “in ways that preserve (its) natural beauty and resources,” said Andrew Brown, a Wilder Foundation spokesman.
The land, considered one of the largest and most ecologically significant remaining unprotected natural areas in the metro area, includes hardwood forest, numerous bogs, wetlands, grasslands and several pristine lakes.
The Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership is partnering with Damascus, an Ohio-based Catholic organization, to expand programming for parishes and schools in and around the metro area, said Tim Healy, the partnership’s president.
“We want to offer a positive alternative to provide hope and a better way of life for our youth,” Healy said. “We see now, more than ever, that young people are struggling – from the mental-health crisis that is gripping our youth, there is an increased feeling of isolation and addictions to social media and video games.”
The summer camp would primarily serve middle-school students; winter retreats would serve a mix of high-school and middle-school students, he said.
Although the overnight camp would primarily serve the Catholic parishes and schools in and around St. Paul and Minneapolis, it would be open to other faith-based groups, he said.
The Wilder Foundation has owned the Wilder Forest since 1957. Until 2003, it provided wilderness education there for thousands of children each year. The nonprofit social services agency, based in St. Paul, now focuses on direct services to support mental health, early childhood development, stable housing and healthy aging.
Proceeds from the sale “will fuel Wilder’s mission to support people across generations to be healthy, stable and prosperous,” Brown said.
Manitou Fund and Wilder officials in 2017 entered into a purchase agreement for the property, Brown said, but Manitou officials decided not to move forward with the agreement. Greg McNeely, one of the directors of the Manitou Fund, a private family foundation, said Tuesday that he could not comment.
Last year, Wilder entered into a letter of intent with Minnesota Land Trust and the Science Museum of Minnesota to purchase the property, but Wilder did not receive a purchase agreement, Brown said, and the letter of intent expired in December.
Plans had to be altered after May Township officials passed in July 2021 a yearlong moratorium on any change in usage in conservancy districts — including the Wilder Forest land.
In January, Wilder officials informed Manitou Fund officials that the property was still available for purchase, Brown said. Three months later, Wilder learned that Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership was interested in purchasing the property.
In June, Wilder informed officials from the Manitou Fund, Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership and River Grove/Marine Area Community School that there were two parties interested in purchasing the property, and Wilder shared the appraised value of the property with Manitou Fund and Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership, Brown said.
Partnership officials presented Wilder with a letter of intent to purchase the property; Manitou Fund officials “provided their verbal opinion on the value of the property, which was significantly less than the appraised value,” Brown said.
The Wilder Foundation’s board determined that the partnership’s letter of intent satisfied all criteria set forth by the board in selling the property, Brown said. Among the criteria: the buyer must use the property to benefit the community and preserve the land’s natural beauty and resources, he said.
The purchase price will remain confidential until closing, he said.
HOLDING OUT HOPE
River Grove Administrator Drew Goodson said Tuesday that he was holding out hope that the school might be able to stay at the site. He said there are still many steps that must be taken in order for the sale to go through, including the granting of a conditional-use permit by the May Town Board.
The school’s five-year lease expires in June 2023.
“Over the entirety of our existence in the forest, our intentions with Wilder have been clear: River Grove intends to own the property or form a long-term partnership with an entity that supports our environmentally focused programming,” Goodson wrote in a letter to parents. “The Wilder Foundation had previously been publicly supportive of this goal and had engaged with us in partnership to help reach it, including being a part of CUP applications and approvals.”
In addition to a potential long-term partnership with Manitou Fund, River Grove officials also had been exploring a purchase of the Wilder property through the formation of “an affiliated building company,” a purchasing option available to Minnesota charter schools following the completion of their sixth year, he said. River Grove will complete its sixth year in June, he said.
“Our goal is to remain in our current location,” Goodson said. “While we are hopeful for this outcome, we are actively exploring contingency plans which would allow the school to continue its operations in a similar nearby setting.”
River Grove officials will hold a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the River Grove Commons to discuss the possible sale, he said.
The school, which is known for its outdoor classrooms and natural setting, is at capacity – 225 students – and has a 75-student waiting list, he said. When the Stillwater Area School District closed Withrow Elementary in Hugo and Marine Elementary in Marine on St. Croix, many of those students enrolled in River Grove, he said.
Being outdoors fosters curiosity in students — from planting bulbs in the fall and watching seedlings emerge from the dirt in the spring to measuring creatures to learn geometry, he said.
“We had a group of students who found a bunch of slugs out in the woods, and they started measuring them and doing addition and subtraction based on the measurements,” he said. “It was, ‘Hey, how many slugs do you need to add together to get to this number?’”
River Grove is “probably one of the biggest success stories right now in the charter world in Minnesota in terms of enrollment, partnerships and programing,” he said. “I think we will find a way to make it work, but it’s going to be a lot of pain, especially for a community that has already lost schools. We’ve been through that before and those emotions and all that stuff. This is just really disturbing.”
Goodson also wondered whether May Township residents would support plans for a summer camp and winter retreat center. “It is what the community is going to want or is that too big of a use?” he said.
No decisions have been made regarding the current facilities, Healy said. Partnership officials will evaluate the current buildings and determine how they would fit program needs; any specifics of the camp “will be determined in partnership with May Township,” he said.
The township’s moratorium, which was extended this summer, will expire at the end of November, said John Adams, chairman of the May Township board.
Adams said the sale of the Wilder Forest land has “been a possibility for a long time.”
“This is a private real-estate transaction, and we have no control,” he said. “We have no power whatsoever. We’re just trying to follow the rules and be ethical. Even trying to influence the situation would be unethical, so we’re not. The chips will fall where they may.”
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