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Omaha Magazine

Teambuilding Near the Tree Line: Fontenelle Forest Adventure Promotes Problem-Solving

Sep 25, 2020 04:06PM ● By Chris Bowling
children climbing the structures, TreeRush Adventures

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 A soft wind rustles leaves and sways branches as it moves through the forest. On the floor, people trek miles of trails for views of rolling hills, hidden lakes, and panoramas of the Missouri River in Fontenelle Forest. Closer to the canopy, others experience the forest south of Omaha in a different way.

Armed with harnesses and helmets, they jimmy through obstacles and ride zip lines through TreeRush Adventures at Fontenelle Forest, an aerial adventure park that opened in July 2019. As climbers look out onto trees in the distance and hikers below, TreeRush staff hope the challenges they face amount to greater meaning.

“It really is an opportunity for empowerment,” said Kema Geroux, spokeswoman for TreeRush. “It’s an opportunity to challenge yourself, it’s an opportunity to problem-solve and try on
different solutions.”

This $1.6 million adventure park located outside the Fontenelle Forest visitor center spans more than five acres and features seven trails color-coded by level of difficulty, ranging from yellow (beginner) to black diamond (expert). During the two-hour allotted time, climbers encounter bridges made of cable and rope, netted tunnels, and zip lines built around trees and poles.

The main park can hold as many as 300 people at a time and offers opportunities for corporate retreats and employee outings, Geroux said.

Along with pre-climb activities led by TreeRush staff, navigating the trails introduces new ways to problem-solve and communicate as climbers help each other overcome obstacles.

“Because of the way we help people talk about their experience and relate their experience back to their work environment,” Geroux said, “they can become more appreciative of what each member brings to the team—more supportive and collaborative
and productive.”

In TreeRush’s first season, Joyce Cooper put that potential to the test with 12 Omaha Public Power District interns. Cooper, the director of diversity and inclusion, met Geroux by chance on a flight. As the two started talking about the then-developing park, Cooper thought it sounded like the perfect way to push these high school graduates to their limits while building trusting relationships in a fun environment.

The exercises and treetop obstacles created a bond that lasted all summer, but Cooper hopes the benefits extend far beyond that.

“In life they’re going to encounter things that seem impossible,” she said. “But I want them to think of this experience and think, ‘Wait a minute, I did this once. I should be able to do it in this situation.’”

Beyond a bond with each other, staff at TreeRush and Fontenelle hope the experience creates something else: a personal connection to nature.

Merica Whitehall, executive director of Fontenelle Forest, said the nonprofit partnered with TreeRush because both organizations hold environmental stewardship paramount.

“It’s all connected to getting people into the outdoors to enjoy the outdoors and to develop a care and passion for it so they will be inspired to protect it,” Whitehall said. “And that’s what’s at the center of Fontenelle Forest’s mission as well.”

Planning for the park began in 2014 with talks between Fontenelle Forest and Adventure Development Team, a park builder that is a partner in TreePlay, the company that operates TreeRush. In 2015, the idea became an integral part of the forest’s strategic plan as a way to add new revenue streams and draw a wider audience, which was then roughly 10% of the metro area.

“Reaching ten percent of the community is not going to change the community’s values or create that inspiration and that care that we want to inspire as an organization,” Whitehall said.

Interest in the park solidified after a nine-month master planning process from 2017 to 2018, which involved Fontenelle board members, donors, staff, volunteers, and visitors. Construction on the park began in April 2019.

The $1.6 million construction was paid for by TreeRush, a private company that leases the land from Fontenelle and shares a portion of its profits. Whitehall and Geroux declined to say how much Fontenelle would expect to receive annually.

That zero-investment, quick-revenue model made the partnership more enticing to Whitehall and has since helped pay to restore 27 miles of trails, as well as easing the financial stress of future projects, such as a nature-based preschool.

“We can use those resources to leverage other opportunities or to implement other projects that we didn’t necessarily have the resources for prior to this project,” Whitehall said.

Although TreeRush had a short first season, Geroux said the company accomplished a lot. That included engaging with the Omaha area through community events as well as training a new staff to keep the park running smoothly and safely. Attendance met expectations, Geroux said, mentioning one October 2019 day that neared capacity with about 250 people in the park at one time. The park reopened in spring 2020, and as that date approached, Geroux said staff looked forward to the challenge of drawing even more curious thrill seekers and, hopefully, providing an access point to experiences more meaningful than an average obstacle course.

“Climbing, swinging, and zip lining through the trees is the thing you do,” Geroux said. “But what’s more exciting for me is watching people talk with each other, laugh with each other, give advice to each other, and enjoy the company [of] people they care about in a way that’s novel to them.”

Visit treerush.com for more information.

This article was printed in the October/November 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.