With a new space and a stack of stand-up paddleboards, Winona State’s Outdoor Education and Recreation Center is opening to the community this summer.
The center’s new space, located in the Wabasha Recreation Center, is stocked with rental gear, from rock-climbing shoes to backpacking stoves, all available for low daily rates.
All that’s missing are customers, but that probably won’t last long.
Director Eric Barnard said that in the two years the center has been around, word has slowly spread about the the prices -- and the good advice.
“We’re expecting a ton of rentals this summer,” he said. “We’re more focused on getting people outside than making money.”
For the first two years of its existence, the center was tucked into the corner of a room in the Integrated Wellness Center at Winona State University. With its new public space, the center has room to store its gear, host meetings, and offer demonstrations, like how to set up a tent.
Barnard has worked with Torry Moore, Sole Sport’s owner, to rent the gear Moore sells at his downtown store. That way, if customers like something they rent from the center, they’ll be able to purchase it locally.
Moore, who has known Barnard for several years, said that the agreement is a great way to increase awareness of both organizations while supporting each other -- and the community. Center staff, for example, can not just rent the equipment, but show people how to use it -- and where, from area trails to waterways.
“We’re both trying to get people more excited about the outdoors,” Moore said.
Barnard has more planned for the center besides rental gear. The space marks the beginning of a long-range project to turn Wabasha Recreation Center into an outdoor hub. This week he plans to choose a contractor for WSU's indoor climbing wall, which will be installed in the gym at Wabasha Recreation Center and is set to open in December.
“I’m pretty psyched,” he said.
Barnard said the almost 6,000-square-foot wall will have features to accommodate beginners, advanced climbers, kids, and everybody in between. The project will cost close to $300,000, and Barnard said half of the funding has come from community sponsors.
The wall — and the center — will eventually be part of WSU’s planned larger Education Village project, an estimated $23 million plan to create a new campus-style setting for teacher training and education.
Barnard said he will also develop the yard behind the center as a space for a bouldering rock, slacklines and other outdoor education features.
The project is late to the outdoor recreation center game, Barnard said, which is a bonus -- they have a blank slate to create a top-notch center. “We can basically see what everybody’s doing,” he said. “The stuff that people aren’t doing, we can do.”
The center is staffed by students, all of whom receive training for the work they do, whether it’s guiding climbs or paddling the backwaters. Barnard himself is a certified instructor-trainer for the Professional Climbing Instructors Association.
Barnard is only getting started on his plans for Winona. He’d like to eventually see Sugarloaf developed as a park, for example, with a marked trail, a shelter for climbers, and interpretive displays explaining the history of the Winona landmark.
Barnard sees the area as a largely untapped natural playground, with its easy access to water trails, climbing, hiking, and other recreational opportunities. It’s a mystery to him why more people don’t see the area’s potential for recreation, he said, which would in turn draw additional talent and enthusiasm to the region.
“Maybe people just haven’t looked at it the way we’re looking at it now,” he said.