Town Officials Seek Details on Nature Center’s Finances, Use of Buildings


[Editor’s Note: After hearing concerns from someTown Building Evaluation and Use Committee members that their comments had been taken out of context, we added a full and unedited audio file from this portion of the public meeting to the top of this article.]

With an eye on prioritizing capital maintenance and spending, officials say they’re seeking detailed information from the New Canaan Nature Center about how the organization’s various programs use the town-owned buildings that form its campus.

One of the New Canaan Nature Center’s buildings. Credit: Michael Dinan

The Nature Center uses one set of books for its entire business–including financially successful enterprises such as camp and a popular nursery school—though it isn’t clear just now whether capital investments earmarked for the Oenoke Ridge Road campus are commensurate with those revenue-drivers, according to members of a committee that’s studying town-owned buildings throughout New Canaan.

“What we are trying to do is find out whether there is an opportunity for the town to use resources better, and then make informed decisions about where we should do that,” Amy Murphy Carroll, co-chair of the Town Building Evaluation and Use Committee, said at the group’s most recent meeting.

“So for instance, the gift shop—there is a revenue line for that of X amount—it’s really pretty minimal and there is lot of space for the gift shop,” Carroll said at the meeting, held in Town Hall.

Appointed in February, the committee’s members also include Penny Young (co-chair), Ben Bilus (secretary), Neil Budnick, Bill Holmes, Christa Kenin and Martin Skrelunas. Collectively they’re studying the capital needs and current uses of 44-plus town-owned buildings in New Canaan (not the schools). In September, the committee is expected to make a full report to the town that could include recommendations about prioritizing the buildings’ capital needs, possible new uses and perhaps even selling off or razing some structures.

Of the Nature Center and its approximately 13 different town-owned buildings, Carroll asked rhetorically: “What is this—is it primarily a nursery school that helps underwrite a nature center with the help of the town? Just to understand that, because there are a lot of capital needs [there], because there are so many buildings.”

Asked about the committee’s work, the Nature Center’s newly installed Executive Director Bill Flynn said: “We definitely think it’s a great thing that the town is doing that they are analyzing all their buildings and that they are talking to all entities and get real data about real usage.”

He continued: “Ultimately if this committee is going to drive their [town funding bodies’] decisions, we want them to be as informed as possible. We want to be as helpful as possible, because this will directly impact us. So we look forward to the opportunity of working with them and getting them the information they need.”

Some of that information appears to include granular details of the Nature Center’s own operations and finances—for example, a rental schedule for the large Sturgess Room in the Visitors Center.

“This is basically a town-underwritten building—right now they get revenues for it,” Carroll said.

Carroll continued: “Is this an asset we can use more or not? But we don’t have how often it is rented, we don’t have a schedule, we don’t have the number of kids in the nursery school.”

She added: “They [Nature Center officials] have been helpful, but we need more.”

Some committee members cautioned that the group’s charge might not require them to delve so deeply into an organization’s operations or make recommendations about day-to-day use.

“I do not want to opine on whether or not the Nature Center should have a nursery school,” Budnick said.

He said: “I’m afraid it’s just maybe too much judgment.”

Holme and others countered that what the committee is trying to do is get a true picture of programming at the Nature Center as it ties into the buildings that the group is responsible for studying.

Skrelunas said it was important to understand whether the nursery school itself is aligned with the Nature Center’s unique mission as an environmental education center.

Kenin, who has teamed up with Carroll to gather information about the Nature Center (the committee is tackling various buildings in pairs), said: “Let’s just say they have 10 buildings on their campus. Certain buildings seem mostly used by the school, other buildings seem more for their general programming—like if you went there for a fall festival and you were shown the maple shack. But then there are, I think, three—don’t quote me—but about three houses that are mostly used by the school. So we are hoping that the uses will help us prioritize the 10 buildings that are on that piece of property.”

Originally, the Nature Center was just that, a nature center, Kenin said, “and then the school evolved.”

“But when you have a building, for example, the greenhouse that is appearing as $250,000 in capital needs on our five-year capital plan, is that one of our top priorities?”

Carroll said the Nature Center readily has supplied two sets of financial reports, a strategic plan and the organization’s deed. The committee also has been told that the Nature Center gets about 10,000 attendees annually, though a further breakdown of that figure would be helpful, Carroll said.

“We will be able to summarize for you, at least in our view, where the revenues come from and where the expenses are, and then hopefully we can generally say these buildings do XYZ toward this mission,” she said.

According to Kenin, at the end of the committee’s work, she felt “there will be more of an opportunity to increase the use of non-school buildings.”

2 thoughts on “Town Officials Seek Details on Nature Center’s Finances, Use of Buildings

  1. Comments made in this article regarding the New Canaan Nature Center’s history, mission, operations and relationship with the Town of New Canaan require clarification.

    The not-for-profit entity of the New Canaan Nature Center was established in 1960 shortly after Susan Bliss deeded 40 acres of her estate to the Town of New Canaan specifying its use as a nature center. The Town appointed the newly formed association to manage the property and buildings. Since its inception, the Nature Center’s mission has remained the same: “The New Canaan Nature Center is an environmental education organization dedicated to inspiring people of all ages to respect, protect and enjoy the world of nature.”

    The Nature Center Preschool, Summer Adventure Camp, and the many nature-oriented community programs and events were established to fulfill the mission and to help finance the administrative and operational costs of the programs and property—both land and buildings. All of the Nature Center’s education programs and community events are mission driven. The buildings, animal ambassadors and exhibits, gardens, trails and habitats serve as indoor and outdoor classrooms to support the many programs that the Nature Center hosts for New Canaan and surrounding communities.

    With respect to the Preschool, it was established in 1967 and is the first nature-based preschool in the U.S. It will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this coming year. It is core to the Nature Center’s environmental education mission and fulfills one of our values – to inspire future environmental stewards and advocates. Nature is the integrating thread of the Preschool’s early childhood education philosophy and methodologies. The Education Building primarily houses the Preschool, but also serves as classroom space for other programs such as the LINKS program (a 26-year state-funded science education grant that unites 4th grade classes of Norwalk and New Canaan for an integrated learning experience) and NYBG (New York Botanical Gardens).

    Specific to the issue of the buildings, over the years, the Nature Center’s revenues from capital campaigns and fundraising initiatives have been used to build new buildings as well as maintain the aging deeded ones. The maintenance of the buildings is a shared responsibility with the Town. We are very grateful for all that the Town has contributed to the maintenance of the property over the years. We are fully supportive of the work that the Buildings Committee is undertaking. It is our hope that the Committee will recognize the value of the Nature Center and its benefits to the community and recommend the appropriate financial commitments from the Town.

    Few communities have the advantage of such a valuable and unique environmental resource that provides diverse and comprehensive environmental experiences and programs. We are grateful to both the Town of New Canaan for its contributions and the New Canaan community for its continuous support of the Nature Center and its fundraising initiatives for the past 57 years.

    • Thank you, Linda, for this summary of the Nature Center’s history and work. It is helpful context for this discussion. I’ve fielded some concerns from members of the committee that quotes had been taken out of context for this article or inaccurately reproduced. Though it’s certainly true that I sometimes do not hear clearly or understand those speaking at a public meeting, in reviewing my own transcript from this section of the May 22 committee meeting, I found the article accurate and fair. To ensure that our readers have all of the information they need and in response to the committee’s concerns, I have embedded the audio file from this portion of their meeting to the top of the story.

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