The Dunwoody Nature Center is asking the city to contribute $1 million toward its $2.6 million capital campaign to construct an entirely new 7,000 square-foot building that will include exhibit space, classrooms and community meeting space. The current building in Dunwoody Park will be renovated into office space.
Nature Center Executive Director Alan Mothner made the request Feb. 10 during the council’s retreat at Lost Corner Preserve in Sandy Springs, saying the current space is too small to meet the community’s needs for programming and space. He was met by a skeptical audience.
“You all are the model public-private partner … but a million bucks from the city?” said Councilmember Doug Thompson. “I recommend you sit through a Budget Committee meeting. We need to pave roads, hire police, hire staff. A million dollars and we start choking.”
Mothner said a feasibility study conducted last year by the Nature Center, located in city-owned Dunwoody Park, shows grants from foundations of up to $600,000 are likely to help pay for the project with the rest coming from individual donations and corporate sponsors, but only if the city is willing to donate $1 million to show its commitment.
“That million equals $2.6 million,” Mothner said. “If we don’t get the $1 million, we won’t get the rest. Foundations want to donate but they want to see the city’s commitment.
“We’ve already received donations of $60,000 for the capital campaign,” Mothner said. “We’ve been working toward this moment for five years. The current building is not serving our needs.” Mothner said the $60,000 is in addition to about $400,000 the Nature Center has saved up over the past years for the capital campaign.
Last year, the Nature Center had a record of more than 22,000 visits to the park and a net revenue of $185,000, Mothner said.
“We intentionally put away as much away as possible for the capital campaign,” he said.
Naming rights for the new Nature Center building could result in a significant donation to the capital campaign, Mothner said. Plans are to have the new building opened in time for the new Austin Elementary School opening in fall 2019.
A significant problem when applying for sizable grants is the fact the city cannot enter directly into a long-term lease with the Nature Center. State law prohibits the City Council from doing so because the lease would bind future councils to the arrangement.
State Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) is expected to introduce legislation this year creating a city facilities authority. If approved, it would allow the Nature Center to enter into a long-term lease with the new authority, Mothner said.
Record attendance and growing demand for Nature Center offerings means the center truly needs to grow if it intends to fulfill its mission of inspiring people to appreciate nature, Mothner said.
A planned 1,800-square-foot pavilion, estimated to cost approximately $300,000 and to be built on the hill overlooking the center’s meadow, would serve as an extension of the Nature Center. Renderings of the pavilion show a low roofline and a fireplace. The Nature Center is seeking funding this year for the pavilion through the city’s Facilities Improvement Partnership Program.
The pavilion Mothner said, would add needed covered space to the Nature Center’s facilities and would allow for more programming, including Boy Scout and Girl Scout troop meetings and school field trips. Opportunities for renting the facility out for corporate events also would be available.
Mothner said the Nature Center would like to begin construction of the pavilion in September 2017 and complete it by March 2018. He said estimates show the new pavilion would bring in more than $61,000 a year in additional revenue to the Nature Center, thereby paying off the building in five years.
The new Austin Elementary School, being built in the 22-acre Dunwoody Park adjacent to the Nature Center, is slated to open in the fall of 2019. The Nature Center is planning to offer after-school programming for students, so now is the perfect time to build the new Nature Center, Mothner said. DeKalb Schools will also pay for a bigger and better parking lot, he said.
“Our plan is when the new school opens, we are opening the new Nature Center,” he said. “It’s a win-win for the Nature Center [and the community]. We can’t handle the kids if we don’t have a new building.”
In addition to planned programming for Austin students, the Nature Center has continued to grow until it no longer can grow, Mothner said.
Camp attendance has reached capacity for the past several years; the Butterfly Festival, started in 1993, attracts thousands of people to Dunwoody Park each year; school field trips brought more than 4,000 students to the park in 2015 and 2016; and paid membership has continued to grow each year and the center now has more than 1,000 current members, Mothner said.
“Camps and Butterfly Festival attendance are flat because we have reached capacity,” Mothner said. “Again, we just don’t have the physical space to house people coming to the park.”
Mothner suggested the city look to fund the $1 million over two years, in 2018 and 2019. A four-month long feasibility study shows there is a demand for the Nature Center to add to its facility and also to offer more programming.
“Does the community want this? The answer is obviously yes,” Mothner said. “The total capital campaign is more than this building.”
But Councilmember Lynn Deutsch said the city did not have $500,000 in this year’s budget to give to the Nature Center and will most likely not have it next year. “This year we are squeezing every dime and it looks like the same for next year,” she said.
She said she is also concerned because for some reason many people in Dunwoody believe the Nature Center is a private park.
Mothner pointed out the Nature Center has made its own expenditures of $100,000 since 2011 in the park and volunteers have donated more than 50,000 hours of service since 2012. He also noted the Nature Center received two federal grants to restore park property totaling $180,000.
“The more people we get into the park, the more people we inspire to love nature,” he said.
This story has been corrected to include information that the Nature Center is seeking to construct a brand new building in addition to the overlook pavilion and to update financial information.