New Lake Elmo nature center to honor resident’s late wife

The Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center will include a classroom, gift shop and restroom on the main floor and office space and additional exhibits in the mezzanine.

Organizers expect to break ground this July

Spurred largely by the efforts of Lake Elmo residents, construction on a nature center in Lake Elmo’s Sunfish Lake Park could begin as early as July with a grand opening expected in October.

The nature center building is expected to cost between $250,000 and $333,000, and is being funded by donations and a loan from Lake Elmo Bank, according to Anthony Manzara, who initiated the project about two years ago in honor of his late wife.

The 2,000 square-foot nature center building will be located on about an acre of grassy land located just south of the Sunfish Lake Park parking lot. The Lake Elmo City Council unanimously approved a lease agreement for the land at the April 18 city council meeting.

“There will be a main floor that contains a classroom, gift shop and restroom and then there will be a mezzanine that will have more exhibits and an office,” said Manzara, who also designed the building.

Sally Manzara, the namesake of the project, died in early 2015 due to cancer, but her memory will be carried on in the spirit of the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center. 

Manzara described his wife as “a Lake Elmo resident, community volunteer, church volunteer, library worker, educator, and an avid birdwatcher who loved Sunfish Lake Park, nature centers and gift shops.” 

Manzara explained the main purpose of the nature center is “to be alive with programs and exhibits for people of all ages.” These features will concentrate on local wildlife and plants, the ecology of the park and the agricultural heritage of the city, he said.

Manzara was quick to add the nature center will not compete with established nature centers such as the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center or the Belwin Nature Center. He explained the established centers specialize in serving large groups of students, though the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center will be more suited to smaller school groups, preschool classes and people with special needs.

“We have reached out to the local schools and they are very interested in being able to use [the nature center] for some of their special programs,” said Connie Kirk, treasurer of the Friends of Sunfish Lake Park, a non-profit organization founded to create the nature center.

“The critical issue really is to have some exhibits and some programs ready by the time the building opens. … So we are looking for donors and for volunteers who are interested in program development and exhibit development,” Manzara said. 

He explained the Friends of Sunfish Lake Park is currently setting up advisory groups tasked with creating programs for people with special needs, elderly people, preschoolers and school-aged children. He added the group is specifically looking for input from people with experience working with any of those groups.

Kirk noted a special interest in creating a program for people on the autism spectrum who often can’t visit parks that are visited by large groups of people. Manzara added the Friends of Sunfish Lake Park has discussed having one day a week as a quiet day for people who are bothered by noise.

The nature center is expected to have about 12 exhibits on topics ranging from oak savannah and prairie restoration to the history of Sunfish Lake Park and the energy use of the nature center building. Manzara added the Friends of Sunfish Lake Park is looking for a project manager for each of the exhibits.

“I know it’s been a challenging and arduous road,” said Mayor Mike Pearson to Manzara at the April 18 city council meeting. “I appreciate your tenacity. Maybe that tenacity will carry through, and I’m sure it will, and make this a success and a sure fitting monument to your wife.”

For more information about the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center or how to get involved, visit


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



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