Old is new again at the Confluence
SOUTH BELOIT -- It isn't stuff of the hit 1985 movie, but organizers and supporters of Nature at the Confluence are going back to the future.
They're learning about what once was, while imagining what the abused land near the intersection of the Rock River and Turtle Creek can become again.
And they're inviting residents of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to join them, starting with the official introduction of the Environmental Learning Center at the third annual Meet Me at the Confluence open house from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 17, at 306 Dickop St., South Beloit.
It's all about residents taking ownership of the restoration project through stewardship of the land. And these efforts started becoming a reality after years of being only a dream in an area heavily settled by Italian and Irish immigrants.
“A big part of this is telling the story and rich history of this place,” said Therese Oldenburg, marketing and program coordinator for the Confluence project and owner of Firepoint Media. “It's not going to be only a nature center ... it's going to be a learning center. My dad is from Beloit, and talking to him and John Patrick of the South Beloit Historical Society, they said there always was a feeling that, 'Don't go down to this area to play because it wasn't safe.'
“So, the open house is a celebration and represents the seeds of renewal,” Oldenburg added. “This is part of a long-term vision and beautification process. It also can be a catalyst for economic development in South Beloit, which is important because it's an entryway.”
Nature at the Confluence is an urban ecology initiative of Beloit 2020, formed in 1989, to transform the land from a liability and eyesore into an asset as a community space that celebrates the natural and historical significance of the area.
The development features around 70 acres west of Blackhawk Boulevard between the Illinois-Wisconsin state line and Charles Street. The focal point will be the nearly 35-acre section from Turtle Creek south to Kelley Creek, which includes the 2,200-square-foot Environmental Learning Center, a 1,500-square-foot outdoor area and a 35-foot high outdoor fireplace.
Jeff Adams has been a member of Beloit 2020 since its inception, arriving in Beloit in 1982 after accepting a position at Beloit College, where he is an emeritus professor of economics.
“The Confluence itself is a great nature resource and has enormous historical value, i.e. it was the location of a significant Native American village, was the site of the original European settler and generated the transfer of property to the New England Emigration Company, which founded Beloit,” Adams said. “At the same time, the natural resource of the Confluence was surrounded by blight and decay, which made it inaccessible. Beloit 2020's investment will bring families and children back to the Confluence and to nature.”
That's why nature-based events -- most of them free -- will be offered throughout the year, including opportunities for children, adults, community groups, schools and businesses to get involved with volunteer and learning projects through Stream Team and Green Team programs. The goal is to have a staff person available for the center to be open for certain hours, but it will be available only during programs for now.
Five acres of land have been planted with native prairie seeds and has been named Centennial Prairie to honor South Beloit's centennial year, which will culminate with a celebration in August. This prairie reconstruction effort will take three to five years to get established, but it will provide a glimpse of what it looked like nearly 200 years ago as a home to a Ho-Chunk settlement of 35 lodges and more than 600 inhabitants.
Meanwhile, Beloit 2020 has raised funds to acquire the property and develop the Confluence campus, located at the midway point of the Rock River Trail, a recent designation of the waterway that covers 320 miles from its headwaters near the Horicon Marsh to where it empties into the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Illinois.
The Confluence's location could be a boon for South Beloit and its northern sister, which is a home to nearby Beloit College and major employers. Not to mention that the redevelopment and transformation will provide a much more inviting gateway from both directions and continues overall revitalization efforts along the river corridor.
Milwaukee native Ted Rehl retired in 2015 after a 44-year career in education, including the last 10 as superintendent of Prairie Hill Schools in South Beloit, which elected him mayor that same year.
He said the Confluence efforts speak to the passion and commitment of both communities.
“No matter the challenge, we rose to the moment,” Rehl said. “Beloit 2020 has been an unwavering partner to this community. Even when the city's resources became vulnerable over time, 2020 never waned in its support. There is no reason to lose faith that our vision for South Beloit will continue to flourish. It is a strong message to others that we are willing to invest in ourselves as opportunities to grow emerge.”
Members of Beloit 2020 and their families have donated all of the funds for the project, with $1 million invested in the development of the site. A $1 million endowment fund also has been established to provide for educational programming for years to come.
“I think the significance of the open house time frame is that it is taking place in the centennial year of South Beloit,” Adams said. “It is our hope that Nature at the Confluence stimulates South Beloit to plan more purposely for its next 100 years.
“But (the project) also is important to filling out the City Center vision and plan that we articulated in 2005. If South Beloit can take advantage of the entire Confluence campus and proceed to build a new library that has nature learning as a special emphasis, then they will be on their way.”
Doreen Dalman has followed the Confluence project since becoming the library's director in April 2014, and discussions about renovating that facility versus a combined space with a new city hall have been ongoing for several years.
“As this conversation continued, new questions arose as to whether the current location was the best place to invest in a modern library,” Dalman said. “We reached out to city hall, which also is in need of space, and wondered if there wouldn't be efficiencies gained by combining the library project with a new city hall. It's exciting to envision a revitalized area to tie this into a campus project in the heart of South Beloit.
“Concepts plans have been drawn up for what that Center for Civic Engagement (a city hall/library) could look like and how it could fit into the area,” Dalman added. “It only made sense to build the library with a nature/environmental theme so that we could create an experience not found in this region and to take advantage of the learning opportunities that will be happening at the Confluence.”
Many positive strides have been made on the Confluence property, but much work remains at the site that used to feature a muffler shop, an area that became a dumping ground for glass, metal and tires.
The park/preserve plan includes multiple learning gardens, walking and bike paths, a pedestrian bridge over Turtle Creek, an amphitheater and a ropes course.
“Nature always has been here; we're just giving people a chance to experience it again,” Oldenburg said. “We want to develop a corps of volunteers in hopes they'll make this their place.”