“‘I love it so much it’s all I can think about.’”
These were the words from the six-year-old son of Associate Dean of Students Jodi Thesing-Ritter one day this summer after she picked him up from summer camp at The Priory.
“It was fantastic, my son loved it,” Thesing-Ritter said. “He loves the outdoors and nature; it was a wonderful experience for him.”
The Priory is the site of the UWEC Children’s Nature Academy, a university service that provided programming and education for children of student and faculty parents on lower campus before the facility was leveled so construction could begin on the new education building.
The Children’s Center, as it was then known, moved to The Priory after plans to move the facility next to the Human Sciences and Services building on Water Street fell through due to a near $700,000 budget excess, said Assistant Chancellor for Facilities and University Relations Mike Rindo.
But even before that, Rindo said there was briefly a plan to move the Children’s Center to a green space near the Hibbard parking lot, but that idea was nipped in the bud fairly soon in the planning process.
So Rindo said The Priory was actually “Plan C.”
“It provided considerably more space,” Rindo said. “The building on campus would’ve been 15,000 square feet and by the time we did value engineering it would’ve been reduced to 14,000 or less. It would’ve lost a classroom. Now, they’ve got 25,000 square feet.”
Rindo said the building near HSS would’ve cost $3.8 million to erect it from the ground up, but since The Priory already existed and needed only improvements like new windows and air conditioning, the project costed $2.4 million.
“In essence, for $2.4 million, they got a lot more building than they would’ve gotten for $3.8 (million) and we couldn’t even construct what was designed for $3.8 million,” Rindo said.
So there’s plenty of breathing room at The Priory’s 112-acre plot, but that’s not all. Assistant Professor of English Blake Westerlund said his three and five-year-old sons enjoy the nature surrounding it.
“They’re surrounded by trees, trails, deer, bluebirds, foxes, wild turkeys; it’s gorgeous,” Westerlund said. “I know parents would love to have their kids on campus, but it’s just not possible with the space. It’s another step in organizing your day, but when I get out there, I think that extra step is worth it for the kids.”
The Priory is three miles south of campus, which CNA Director Rebecca Wurzer said creates challenges for some parents without adequate transportation.
A shuttle to and from the CNA is available 15 times a day but on a rigid schedule, which doesn’t always pan out for student or faculty parents and their children. Wurzer said there are still kinks in the process of traveling, but those kinks would work themselves out over time.
“It’s great for kids and it’s getting better for us, too,” Wurzer said.
Even though being three miles away from such a compact campus seems far, Thesing-Ritter said she actually found a little solace in the drive there and back.
“For me, the benefit of knowing that my child was in a beautiful space involved in nature outweighed the stress the extra drive caused for me,” Thesing-Ritter said.
Junior English major Paige Jaworski has worked for the Children’s Center for three years and has noticed many of the difficulties involved with getting to and from the CNA using both the shuttle and her own car.
“It’s definitely not as convenient as it was when it was on campus,” she said, noting that even with a car, it’s not easy. “I have a car, but you need a parking permit; otherwise you get a ticket.”
Jaworski said it wouldhave been easier for students, parents and faculty alike to go with the original idea to build the new center next to HSS.
“I know they want to grow, and there’s enough space to do that (at The Priory),” Jaworski said. “I guess I’m confused why we’re not going with the original plan to be on Water, but I think longterm (being at The Priory) is good for what they want to do.”
The university has a 15-year lease on The Priory, so having the CNA there is a long-term plan, but Westerlund said he’s supportive of his kids learning and growing there.
“I’d prefer it stay out there even though it means I have to get up a little bit earlier,” he said. “It’s so worth it.”