New nature center opens in Lake Elmo June 2

Aundrea Kinney/Review • Construction is winding down at the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center as volunteers from the Friends of Lake Elmo’s Sunfish Lake Park prepare for the center’s grand opening on Saturday, June 2.

The Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center, named in memory of a Lake Elmo resident, will open to the public on Saturday, June 2, during a grand opening event.

The nature center, which has been under construction since September, is located in Sunfish Lake Park just south of the parking lot and includes classroom and exhibit space on a 2,400-square-foot lower level along with a gift shop and restrooms. An 800-square-foot mezzanine offers more exhibit and office space.

Tony Manzara initiated the creation of the nature center three years ago in honor of his late wife, Sally, who loved such centers, gift shops and Sunfish Lake Park. Sally died of pancreatic cancer in 2015.

In his effort to create the center, Manzara established the Friends of Lake Elmo’s Sunfish Lake Park, a nonprofit organization with the mission of making the nature center a reality.

The center cost roughly $300,000, and was funded through donations and a loan from Lake Elmo Bank.

Manzara said he’s not sure yet what the nature center’s regular hours will be after the grand opening because they’re dependent on available volunteers. He added that his goal is to have it open every day of the week from about 8 a.m. to about 5 p.m.

In general, he said, the project relied heavily on volunteers.

“Roughly 1,000 hours of volunteer time were donated so far by 40 different people to help with the construction,” Manzara said, adding that volunteers installed interior finishing and insulation, painted walls and completing numerous other tasks. “Whatever we didn’t need to pay a contractor for we did ourselves.”

He added the volunteers extended beyond the Friends group to anyone in the community who was willing to help.

Grand opening

The June 2 grand opening will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The entrance to Sunfish Lake Park is on Stillwater Lane North, just off County Road 14, west of downtown Lake Elmo.

The event is free and open to the public, but no animals beyond service dogs will be allowed inside the nature center, Manzara said, adding, “the park is a great park to walk dogs.”

At 10:30 a.m. there will be a dedication speech to begin the day. Then at 11 a.m. there will be a program by the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, during which those in attendance will be able to see an eagle and hawk up close.

The event’s other activities will be ongoing throughout the day, including tours of the nature center building, a visit from a group of invasive-plant-species-eating goats called the Munch Bunch, a watercolor artist painting natural items, a Washington County station on recycling and a Valley Branch Watershed District station on the district’s 50th anniversary, as well as refreshments. 

There will also be sign-up tables for camp sessions, a bird walk and nature artistry classes. Participants will also be able to walk along a nature trail with various informational stations along the way detailing information about the park.

The nature center’s gift shop is small right now, Manzara said, so there won’t be many items for sale at the time of the grand opening, though some of the exhibits will be available to view.

He added that if there is rain June 2, the outdoor activities will be moved inside. “We’re going to have the grand opening rain or shine.”


– Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or

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