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Crane foundation prepares 'soft reopening' of renovated Baraboo site in May
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Crane foundation prepares 'soft reopening' of renovated Baraboo site in May

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More than two years after it closed to the public for a $10 million renovation, the International Crane Foundation’s Baraboo headquarters will finally reopen — softly — in May.

There won’t be any grand opening or celebration event given the ongoing pandemic, but Chief Operating Officer Kim Smith said she’s excited that visitors will be able to make reservations to enter the gates of the almost 300-acre site starting May 1 and “celebrate with us all season.”

“I think they’re just going to be really stunned at the beauty of the site right now. It looks a lot different than what they’re used to seeing, and it’s gorgeous,” Smith said. “And it’s a great respite from all of the craziness we’ve been through in the pandemic, so we’re just really looking forward to everyone coming to see it.”

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International Crane Foundation Chief Operating Officer Kim Smith points out the construction site Feb. 8, 2019, through a window in the Vogel Bros. Building Co. trailer at the Baraboo wildlife center. The public will be able to visit the renovated site starting May 1 after the coronavirus pandemic delayed its grand opening by a year.

Extended closure

The wildlife center north of Baraboo closed after its 2018 season to undergo extensive changes, including a new visitor center, fresh murals and renovated exhibits to give the cranes more space to display their natural behaviors. Leaders expected to reopen by summer of 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic caused construction delays and a dangerous environment for large crowds.

Work completed mid-summer last year, Smith said, coming in on budget at $10.4 million. Because COVID-19 meant ICF would stay closed throughout 2020, staff took their time finishing the planting and moving birds into their exhibits over the summer, she said.

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Throughout the pandemic, ICF has done “OK” financially, Smith said. She said the extended closure led to about $300,000 of lost revenue. That’s about 5% of the organization’s total budget of roughly $6 million, which funds conservation work in more than 50 countries across five continents.

Smith characterized the $300,000 loss as “pretty much where we ought to be,” given the circumstances created by the pandemic. A virtual fundraiser and sneak peak of the property in July helped, she said.

The foundation employs almost 60 people in the U.S., in addition to 24 interns. While leadership committed to keeping all of its staff and continuing conservation work despite the pandemic, Smith said they did end some internships early last year and cut the number of interns this year by half to lower their communal housing density to a safer number. They plan to continue being cautious until COVID-19 vaccines are widely distributed, Smith said.

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“Our staff did just an incredible job of pivoting this year,” she said, noting their creativity in getting back in the field to continue their conservation work worldwide and maintaining ICF’s visibility online with a webinar series.

She thanked donors, the community, future visitors and other supporters “for loving us and keeping our work alive.”

New site

Unable to pick just one favorite new feature, Smith said the “amazing” visitor center, “stunning” murals and Cranes and Culture area with a fountain of dancing red-crowned cranes are all highlights visitors will enjoy.

“The whole flow of the site is very different now, and it really tells the story of our global work as you walk through it,” Smith said.

People will need to make a reservation ahead of their visit. Smith said ICF is currently working on a reservation system, which will stagger entry times in 15-minute increments to ensure social distancing can be maintained. Masks will be required.

ICF is expecting to be able to accommodate between 150-200 visitors per day this summer, according to spokeswoman Pamela Seelman. Information on how to make a reservation will be shared on its website, savingcranes.org, when plans are finalized.

Before closing for construction, the wildlife center drew up to 20,000 guests each season, including school tours, Seelman said in an email. Its season runs from April 15 through Oct. 31.

It is the only place in the world where guests can see all 15 species of cranes at once. Each of the 15 exhibits will house two birds, a mated pair, Smith said, adding that ICF has “plenty of (other) birds behind the scenes” at its on-site breeding facility.

If the pandemic improves by fall, ICF will host a celebration of the site at that time, Smith said.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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