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Indigenous gardens, an array of indoor and outdoor exhibits and a community meeting space are what hundreds of current and future visitors to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul want to see at a proposed interpretive center, according to a recent survey.

More than 600 people, including sanctuary neighbors, area business owners and more than 20 members of the Dakota community, not only said the Wakan Tipi Center is needed, but shared what programming and services they want in the wildlife area on the edge of downtown. Melanie Kleiss, executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project, said she hopes the survey results continue building momentum for the proposed $6.7 million center.

"Considering that the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary was really a community-driven effort, the center really needs to be community driven as well," Kleiss said. "And we don't really know what people want there unless we ask."

The sanctuary is a 27-acre park within short walking distance from downtown St. Paul, forged from a once-polluted industrial site between St. Paul's Lowertown and Dayton's Bluff neighborhoods. The Trust for Public Land helped buy the land, which was given to the city as a park. Volunteers helped clean the site and planted it with native grasses and other plants. It provides habitat to eagles, herons and other wildlife.

But the site does not have any facilities. While the sanctuary attracts bus loads of schoolchildren and a regular stream of noontime hikers, officials with the Lower Phalen Creek Project, a nonprofit that advocates for developing parks and trails in the area, think it can become much more.

Survey respondents agree. Nearly all said a center should be built at the site. Sixty-nine percent want an indigenous garden there, 64 percent want indoor exhibits and 61 percent want outdoor exhibits. More than half want community meeting rooms.

Officials are working to increase the sanctuary's profile — with the public and with potential funders, Kleiss said.

"People see this as a place to connect with nature, as well as our history and our culture," she said, adding that 14 percent of survey respondents come from indigenous communities. "So often, we're talking to people who say, 'I have to go check that out.' It's a hidden gem."

Kleiss said officials have raised about $250,000 for the center and hope it wins legislative support to become part of the next bonding bill. Last month, the House Capital Investment Committee toured the site.

The next step will be creating a diverse group of community members, including members of Indian tribes for whom the area and its Wakan Tipi cave are sacred, "to make sure we engage the community every step of the way," Kleiss said.

James Walsh • 651-925-5041