The 40-acre Maplewood Nature Center has closed, and whether it reopens again may depend on whether or not the city can find a partner to help pay for it.
Volunteers who have worked to build the marsh and oak woods site into a premier environmental destination fear the closure is for good, but Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams said she remains optimistic the city can someday reopen it.
“Given where we are, I view this as we’re doing a reset,” she said.
The center closed in March when other city offices were shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it wasn’t until a few days ago that a posting on the city’s website said the center will remain closed indefinitely.
Abrams said she wants to talk to the City Council on Monday about creating a task force to explore private partnerships for the nature center. For years the city has underwritten the nature center at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said.
Workers’ compensation costs, health insurance increases and an expected drop in tax revenue means the city could see a $1 million deficit by the end of this year, she said.
At the same time, Abrams said she’s committed to not raising the tax levy.
Abrams said she expects other cities across the state will face the same economic headwinds this year as the effects of the COVID-19 crisis result in diminished tax revenue.
“This is the tip of the iceberg, what you’re seeing right now,” she said.
The closure comes less than a year after the sudden loss of another major environmental site, the Warner Nature Center near Marine on St. Croix. Long known for hosting thousands of schoolchildren each year for close-up encounters with native flora and fauna, the Warner center closed after the nonprofit Manitou Fund that owns it pulled out of a longstanding agreement with the Science Museum of Minnesota for programming. A Manitou spokesman said at the time that the group plans to reopen the center someday, but no firm timeline has been established.
In Maplewood, Christa Rittberg, a 12-year volunteer at the nature center, said she’s unsure if it will ever open again. “I think that’s kind of the million-dollar question, and that’s one of my concerns,” she said. “Something just doesn’t feel right to me.”
The city website now says coronavirus and budget issues are to blame for the closure, but Rittberg said the city proposed defunding the nature center a year ago and turning the operations over to the YMCA.
She recently asked for more information and sent an e-mail to Abrams asking her to provide more information on the city’s website about cuts and layoffs. Rittberg said no one got back to her.
Even if the closure is temporary, the nature could lose its partnerships with nonprofits, the University of Minnesota and other organizations that took years to build, Rittberg said.