Advocates convince county to rebuild Maydale Nature Center

After nearly a decade of uphill battles and false starts, community leaders finally convinced our elected officials to revitalize the Maydale Nature Center, which had been closed since 2008. The new center, located in the Colesville/Cloverly area, will provide environmental activities and educational programs to children and adults in East County.

The Parks Department anticipates completing the center at the Maydale Conservation Park before the end of this year.

None of this would have been possible were it not for the strong leadership and grit of Burtonsville resident and mother of two, Renée Katz.

Photo of Renée Katz speaking to audience of thirty.
Renée Katz updates East County residents about the status of Maydale at the East County Regional Services Center. Photo by Brian Anleu, October 2016.

The loss of Maydale was a loss for East County

Before it closed in 2008 due to budget cuts, the Maydale Nature Center provided an early childhood environmental education program to 4,000 MCPS students each year. Nearly every K-3 student in surrounding elementary schools participated in annual field trips at Maydale from 1994 to 2007.

Children walking around a pond covered in lily pads.
Children look for animal tracks during a guided nature walk at Maydale organized by the Parks Department. Photo by author, September 2016.

When the center was shut down, students in East County’s elementary schools lost access to valuable environmental education programs. Although there are four other Nature Centers operated by Parks and one operated by MCPS, many teachers in East County cut back on nature center field trips due to the additional costs and time associated with having to travel further. Furthermore, the Smith Center, which suggested as a replacement for Maydale, could only accommodate about half of the their field trip requests, according to MCPS interim superintendent Larry Bowers.

Community members noted that the loss of the Maydale Nature Center was another example of the lack of accessible, high-quality services in East County compared to wealthier areas of Montgomery County. This concern was brought up by councilmembers Tom Hucker and Marc Elrich during a meeting of the County Council’s Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee.

“To me, this is one of those east-west social justice issues. The parks that you listed [other county nature centers] aren’t anywhere close to here. We were told that the East County schools used to go to the Smith Center. They don’t go there now, and often because they can’t afford it and because of the length of the trip. … They really can’t realistically go to another center.”

–Councilmember Marc Elrich,
February 8, 2016 PHED Committee Meeting (1:16)

Map of Northeast Cluster elementary schools. The average minority and FARMS rate of the NEC is 87% and 54% respectively. The MCPS average is 63% and 33%.
Demographics for elementary schools in the Northeast Consortium which would be most likely to attend field trips at Maydale. Click to enlarge. Image by author.

As shown in the attached infographic, all but one of the seven elementary schools that historically attended field trips at Maydale are at least 90% non-white and 50% FARMS (free and reduced meals). If East County students did not have access to meaningful outdoor educational opportunities through the public school system, it was unlikely that they would be exposed to many outdoor activities at all due to limited household budgets.

 

It just takes one determined person to start a movement…

In 2015, a group of community activists formed a working group to renew interest in re-establishing the Maydale Nature Center. The group began when Renée spoke at a County-wide Recreation Advisory Board meeting in support of Maydale. She provided a report highlighting the former glory of the Maydale Nature Center and why it was important to restore it.

Her testimony sparked a chain reaction: it motivated the Parks Department and other county staff to organize meetings to discuss ways to restore nature programming. They held meetings in March, May, June, and September to discuss options and opportunities for Maydale.

A working group was formed, which included the following members:

  • Jewru Bandeh, Director of East County Regional Services Center
  • State Delegate Eric Luedtke, District 14
  • Claire Iseli, Senior Legislative Aide for Councilmember Marc Elrich
  • Brian Anleu, Legislative Aide for Councilmember Tom Hucker
  • Lanita Whitehurst, Senior Network Coach at IMPACT Silver Spring
  • Alison Praisner Klumpp, teacher at Fairland Elementary School and member of East County Citizens Advisory Board
  • Renée Katz, Executive Committee Member of the Countywide Recreation Advisory Board
  • Dan Hertz and other Montgomery Parks staff [correction, see below]
Photo of Tammy talking with Brian.
Tammy Shepherd (IMPACT Silver Spring) discusses the importance of Maydale with Brian Anleu (Councilmember Hucker’s office). Photo from IMPACT’s blog post, “The Maydale Nature Center“, March 2015.

In their September 2015 meeting, the Maydale Working Group determined that it would be too costly to repair the 70-year-old building, which was deteriorated and unsafe. They concluded that the most feasible way of revitalizing the nature center would be to re-purpose a portable trailer that the Parks Department no longer needed. This idea provided enough cost-savings to allow the project to be completed within a few years without having to go through the whole process of designing and constructing a new building from scratch.

…but it takes a community to sustain it

One month later, a letter from the Parks Director almost derailed our progress. The director wrote that the Maydale Nature Center was not a priority due to budget constraints and competing projects. This letter was upsetting and surprising, given that the estimated project cost for building a new nature center at the time ($342,000) was 0.17% of the Park Department’s proposed $194 million budget.

Reading the letter, I could not help but notice the disparity reflected in the Parks Department’s proposal to spend more than $3,800,000 on a one-acre park in Bethesda with no buildings and no programs, while tight budgets was cited as a roadblock to reopening a nature center with a proven track record in a historically underserved community at a tenth of the cost.

The sense of injustice at being denied funding after so much effort emboldened me and others to fight harder for Maydale. Renée encouraged local residents to write to the County Council, which led me to work with her to create an online petition. We got nearly 100 people to submit petitions, but we didn’t stop there.

In February, I and two other community representatives (Quent Remein, President of Cloverly Civic Association and Ellen Mann, Maydale Park Weed Warrior Supervisor) testified at public hearings to persuade the County Council to fund the Maydale Nature Center.

Sebastian speaks at public hearing.
First time testifying can be a little scary, but very rewarding! Photo from recording available at montgomerycountymd.com

When we were told again that the County could not afford to fund Maydale due to a county-wide budget shortfall, we stepped up our game even further and visited each councilmember’s office in person to explain the benefits and importance of the Maydale Nature Center. Nearly every councilmember we spoke with appreciated our enthusiasm and the opportunity to learn more about our concerns.

Our representatives in Annapolis also helped garner the County Council’s support for Maydale by sponsoring a state bond bill to provide an additional $75,000 for Maydale. The bill was sponsored by Delegates Luedtke, Anne Kaiser, and Senator Craig Zucker.

Another battle for us was to convince the Parks Director and Planning Board to design the facility as an indoor learning center. They were strongly considering making it an open-air center. This was unacceptable to us because we knew that without walls, plumbing, heating, or cooling, the center would not be useful year-round as an environmental education classroom. Fortunately, enough community members testified at the April 7 Planning Board hearing to persuade the Planning Board to move forward with the indoor option.

Sebastian speaks at Planning Board public hearing.
Community leaders persuade Planning Board to provide an indoor facility at Maydale. Left to Right: Renée Katz, Quent Remein, Sebastian Smoot, Ellen Mann. Photo from recording available at montgomeryplanningboard.org

Fortunately our hard work paid off, and we finally convinced the County Council to add funds for Maydale in the Parks Department budget. On May 26, 2016, the County Council approved funding to replace the old building with a new one. Since then, the Parks Department has been collaborating with the community and the Maydale Working Group to develop an attractive, accessible, multi-use, and environmentally-friendly design.

Rendering of new Maydale Nature Center
The new Maydale Nature Center will have ADA-accessible ramps, solar panels, and several environmental design features. Image by Montgomery Parks.

What can you do to get involved?

Correction: An earlier version of this blog post forgot to mention that the Maydale Working Group included a team of Montgomery Parks staff. Thank you to Renée Katz for noting the accidental omission. She added, “It was really Parks that had the idea for the trailer and I want to make sure it’s clear we were working alongside Parks.”

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