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Parks and Rec Director ruminates on 15 years

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Behind the wheel of a red truck, Mike Ulrich, Parks, Recreation and Forestry Director for Prairie du Chien, gave the grand tour of Prairie’s outdoor locations. From Lawler Park through St. Feriole Island all the way to La Riviere Park, Ulrich added to each leg of the journey with stories and history that tracked his (and many others’) contributions to the community’s development.

Prairie du Chien has an identity indelibly tied to the outdoors. Settled along the Mississippi River, faced toward Iowa’s chin, Prairie has its parks, its islands, and its activity areas peppered liberally across its domain. It’s difficult to imagine the town without considering the recreational opportunities that draw tourists each year.

“Being a Parks and Rec guy forces you, or it should, to take advantage of the things out here,” Ulrich said. Prairie’s many recreation sites aren’t just his job; they’re part of his passion. 

The tour started at St. Feriole Island then winnowed through the streets to Hoffman Hall, which played a significant role in Ulrich’s career. When Ulrich arrived in 2008, after 18 years in La Crosse as a Recreation Superintendent, it was among his first projects.

“One of the main reasons I was brought in was to try to revitalize the Hoffman Hall Rec Center, and that was in turmoil at the time whether to keep it open or not.” Ulrich said. 

The Center was kept open and converted from a portion of Campion High School into one of the town’s vital nodes. Today, the Center is utilized for a bevy of activities, including voting services for Prairie’s population.

Back on the island, Ulrich could point in any direction for a demonstration of Prairie’s continued investment in the natural environment. At 300 acres, St. Feriole hosts canoe and kayak landings, a ballpark, hiking/biking trails, disc golf courses, and so many other structures it’s almost impossible to recall them all. The docket of events is similarly innumerable. As Ulrich stood near the marina, he points to one side of the road where a 50-team fishing tournament had taken place, then pointed to other side of the road where a 60-team tournament happened concurrently.

“Its just there’s something for everyone,” Ulrich said. “There’s always something to do.”

Ulrich added that Prairie is “different than any other community in the state” for its recreation environment. “I’ve got great park boards that were very positive and a lot of volunteers to do all this. The park board and the council have been very open-minded.” It’s a community effort.

“There are individuals who like to step up and provide, whether it’s time or commitment of money or donations.” Ulrich said as the truck drove on the gravel next to the dog park. “I couldn’t do this myself.”

The Dog Park, which came to fruition for $37,000 from more than 60 donors, opened in 2021. Ulrich stated it was a place people could let their dogs run free and play without a leash, unlike St. Feriole or La Riviere. “These are all things I thought the community, being an outdoor community, needed. And they’re being used, which is awesome.”

Ulrich looped around town to stop at La Riviere, swing by Washington St. Park, and back to St. Feriole, a place that embodies the community’s heritage. Adjacent to the construction crews digging Earth for road expansion, a bare field sits ready for the circus to come in mid-August. The island is a convergence point for history, activity and people. There are large-scale events held year round and intimate gatherings in its many corners. Near the river, Ulrich points to an area that will be developed into a handicap accessible ramp.

“The goal is always to get something for everyone. So, little kids, to three and four year-olds to 93-94 year-olds and everything in between,” Ulrich said. “There’s a reason they come here: they come to see stuff and utilize the facilities and have things that are nice.”

In the future, Ulrich wants to see projects continue on the waterfront, Villa Louis and along the trails. He’d like to be back for Oktoberfest, an event Ulrich said seems to get bigger every year.

On Thursday evening, just hours after the tour, Ulrich went back to Lawler’s South Shelter for the 13th Concerts in the Park show, a series of free concerts Ulrich started to bring more visitors to St. Feriole Island. On Aug. 1, Ulrich will not be the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Director. In retirement, there’s family to see and fishing to do. “I have some things planned, but at least for the first month, I want to try and enjoy life. I worked long enough—sleep in on a Monday, if I can!” 

Ulrich said, “everybody volunteers something” in Prairie du Chien. Money, time, and energy go into the town from people that reside and visit there. And he’s not leaving the community behind next month. “I know I want to see these projects through to completion. I still want to be involved.”

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