Rancocas Nature Center saved from closing

Written by Carol Comegno Courier-Post Staff

Mar 28

courierpostonline.com

WESTAMPTON — The Burlington County freeholders announced Thursday they will enter into a shared services agreement with the state and Westampton to save the Rancocas Nature Center and Park from closing.

“This plan calls for a unique partnership between the state, county, Westampton and nonprofit organizations to allow the nature center and the 2.7-mile trail system to remain open for the enjoyment of the public,” said county Freeholder Director Joe Donnelly.

“Now the outdoor education programs and summer camp that had been run by NJ Audubon will remain a popular destination for families.”

NJ Audubon, a nonprofit conservation organization, announced in December it was closing the nature center for financial reasons. It leases and manages 130 acres of land and the nature center on the Westampton side of Rancocas State Park.

Eric Stiles, executive director of NJ Audubon, said his organization will support a “mindful transition to a coalition of public and nonprofit organizations” that will assume operation of the center effective May 1.

“We are excited about the great partners involved, each bringing significant and complementary strengths to the table,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said, NJ Audubon will operate the center throughout April.

Under a new shared services agreement, the county will file for a special use permit from the state, which owns the park, to manage the lands and buildings. The county will maintain buildings and trails and pay certain operating expenses, but the state would assume all responsibility for any capital improvements to the buildings, according to county officials.

The plan calls for Westampton to hire the two full-time employees, secure all necessary state and county health department approvals needed for running a summer camp and to provide necessary training.

Westampton also would provide insurance to cover all program activities, including insurance for volunteers.

In the meantime, the newly formed Friends of Rancocas Nature Center will continue to raise money, said Friends spokeswoman Toni Price.

“We’re still in a transitional period and all of the details have not been finalized, but with that said all of the Friends really can’t thank the stakeholders enough toward finding a real workable solution to keep it open,” she said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection was unable to provide a comment Thursday on the tentative agreement.

NJ Audubon projected the nature center would run at a deficit of $55,000 in 2013 but had agreed to keep it open until Easter, giving stakeholders an opportunity to raise money to cover the deficit and to form a long-term plan to sustain the operation.

That prompted the formation of the nonprofit Friends of Rancocas Nature Center, which Donnelly said has received generous pledges to help keep the center open, and which will continue fundraising and will help staff the facility with volunteers.

Freeholder Aimee Belgard said the proposed shared service agreement is an excellent example of how governments can partner with one another and a nonprofit organization to benefit residents.

“This partnership will enable the Rancocas Nature Center to continue to operate and serve as a fantastic place for exploring nature for families in Burlington County,” she said.