Hartley Nature Center expansion nears completion

The $2.9 million project will mean more room for preschoolers, field trips, summer camps and the public.

Hartley Nature Center expanding.
Hartley Nature Center Executive Director Tom O’Rourke talks about the 5,200-square-foot addition to the center’s building during a tour Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Hartley Nature Center used to offer its programming out of the trunk of a car.

Then, in 2003, its 20-year dream of having a home came to fruition with the completion of its 7,500-square-foot interpretive center in Hartley Park off Woodland Avenue.

And now, work is wrapping up on a 5,200-square-foot expansion of that building. It’s set to open later next month.

Hartley Nature Center expanding.
Rain falls on the Hartley Nature Center addition Thursday. The addition is scheduled to be completed in late June.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Tom O’Rourke, executive director of Hartley Nature Center, said the organization has outgrown the current building. In addition to its preschool, visits by the general public and equipment rental, Hartley sees 1,200 summer campers and thousands of kids on field trips each year.

“The magic of Hartley really happens outside in the 660 acres of the park,” O’Rourke said. “But in order to really deliver our programming, we need high-quality facilities for all those different functions. So this (building) is a jumping-off point for all those Hartley Park learning adventures.”


The new space will feature three new restrooms, additional office space, meeting spaces and two new classrooms. The expansion will allow enrollment of its preschool — currently at 92 kids — to grow by 24 slots. And it will help the nature center “reclaim” a classroom at the front building and its lobby, which serves as an overflow classroom during its summer camps.

Hartley Nature Center expanding.
One of the classrooms in the Hartley Nature Center addition, seen Thursday sports siding from the original portion of the center on one wall.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“It’s really trying to also give this front part of the building back to the public and for us to be able to connect with people,” O’Rourke said.

The entire project will cost $2.9 million and the nature center still needs to raise $100,000 after the pandemic caused labor and material costs to increase. The nature center is turning to donors to help make up the difference and fully fund the expansion’s construction.

The project has been funded with $1.3 million from the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission, $1.2 million from the nature center itself and $400,000 from the city.

The buildings are located in a city park, so they are owned by the city and leased long term by the nature center.

The construction process is expected to take eight months.

The city applied for the $1.3 million grant on behalf of the nature center and chipped in its own grant package specifically for aiding navigation within the park.

“If you have spent much time in Hartley Park, you will know that signage and wayfinding is a great need on that very dense trail system,” said Jessica Peterson, the city's parks and recreation manager.

Although Hartley has been a city park since 1941, it was also designated as part of the Duluth Natural Areas Program in 2020, meaning it will be “permanently protected,” Peterson said.


Hartley Nature Center expanding.
Drywall is still being installed in Hartley Nature Center’s 5,200-square-foot addition Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“It’s an overlay to a parks designation in our system that is even stronger than a parks designation and kind of gives us direction on how we should steward and maintain the park as a natural space,” Peterson said. “And doing so coincides with the recreational use and other uses in the park.”

In recent decades, Hartley Park’s uses have largely become outdoor education via the nature center, mountain biking, cross-country skiing and hiking.

But its primary uses have changed over the years. Beginning in the 1890s, it went from forest to a dairy and lettuce farm. After abandonment, it earned park status in 1941.

Hartley Nature Center expanding.
Tom O’Rourke
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

And in the 1960s, one of its hills was home to a soapbox derby track, which O’Rourke paid homage to by wearing an old soapbox helmet instead of a hard hat during a recent tour of the building’s expansion.

Then, after the city battled motorized dirt bikes and other vehicles that used the park, recreation and natural preservation as its future prevailed.

Today, trail users can often hear children at the nature center playing in the woods.

O’Rourke said it’s important for kids to do things like build forts and damn creeks, and he hopes a larger building will help more people experience the park.

“I think the future of protecting these wild places is also contingent on this generation growing up and being connected to the outdoors,” O’Rourke said. “If they don’t know and love these places, then they’re not going to be protected.”


During a visit Tuesday, the U.S. senator said she and other legislators helped keep the base eligible for F-35s last year. Now, the Air Force needs to be convinced Duluth is the right place for the more modern aircraft.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at or 218-723-5332.
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