By Dermot Connolly
The June 3 ribbon-cutting at Orland Park Nature Center marked the official unveiling of something that village officials have been working on for more than seven years.
Located at 13951 S. LaGrange Ave., the nearly 28-acre site began with the village’s 2013 purchase of the 3.5-acre Pebble Creek landscaping center and nursery through the Open Lands of Orland Park Fund.
Then, in 2017, the family of Steven and Matina Gianakas donated 24 acres of wetland to the village in memory of their son, George, who died in 2013. Steven Gianakas, a local businessman who owned Hickory Hills Country Club and built the Condesa del Mar in Alsip.
The property north of Southwest Highway and east of LaGrange Road is adjacent to the 135th Street Wetlands, a 7-acre parcel donated to the village in 2003.
“I know when we think of Orland Park, everyone thinks of our mall, our retail and our restaurants. But what often gets overlooked is the amount of open space and open lands that we have in Orland Park,” said Mayor Keith Pekau at the ribbon-cutting.
The nature center is just east of the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s McGinnis Slough on the west side of LaGrange.
“We have 15,000 square miles of forest preserves either in or touching Orland Park. When you think of the diversity of habitat here, it is amazing. We have over 60 parks, 650 acres of parkland and this is going to be a phenomenal addition to that. It is an amazingly beautiful site with places we can host events,” said the mayor.
In addition to the wetlands, the Nature Center includes an outdoor gathering space with an amphitheater that can accommodate a variety of uses and group sizes, a new permeable paver parking lot and drive aisle that connects the entrances on Southwest Highway and LaGrange. A paved trail loops around the site and includes seating areas where visitors can view native plants and wildlife
Trustee Kathy Fenton, who has been involved with the Nature Center since its inception as a member of the Open Lands Commission as well as a trustee, said future plans include renovating the original building on the property. It includes office space but it must be brought up to ADA standards.
Right now, the building is decorated with large photos of birds and other wildlife taken on the site.
Joe Ogrodnik and Cindy Murdock, of Burbank, were among the visitors to the birdwatching shelter at the Nature Center on a recent Sunday, where they took turns looking through the stationary telescopes to get a better view of the ducks and other wildlife. The same type of telescopes are available in the native plants area, too.
“I’m so glad it is finally open. We didn’t notice any work being done for a long time and then we saw the fences go up,” said Ogrodnik, who was busy taking pictures of the wildlife.
“We even saw a muskrat come up from the water’s edge there. It looked like it was going after one of the ducklings but the female seemed to smack it away with her wing.”
“He must be afraid to come out now,” joked Murdock.