A citizens group that set out to find ways to stimulate interest and financial support for the 8,500-acre Brooker Creek Preserve in northeast Pinellas County now wants to manage the county-owned property. The Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve has been buoyed by an international consulting team's suggestion that the group is capable of managing the sprawling preserve.
"We're going forward with it," said Barb Hoffman, chairwoman of the Friends.
But exactly what role the Friends group would take remains to be seen.
Paul Cozzie, the head of the county department that manages the preserve, said it would be premature to comment about the group's proposal, since no plan has been presented to officials yet. But given the current budget climate, he's open to exploring the idea of the group taking a more active role in the management of the public preserve.
"They have a vision for Brooker Creek. We may support that vision. But we don't have the resources to take it there," said Cozzie, the county's Parks and Conservation Resources Department director. "If there's a different way of way of managing it and fundraising, they may be better able to support that vision."
The county worked for years to purchase the properties that now make up the preserve, and touted it as an environmental gem in crowded Pinellas. The county originally intended it as a place for scientific research and environmental preservation, with hiking and educational programs for the public. But in recent years, the economic downturn has taken a bite out of county resources devoted to Brooker Creek.
A few years ago, the preserve's Environmental Education Center, which was open five days a week, had five full-time and three part-time employees and saw nearly 27,000 visitors annually. Now, it is open only three days a week. The staff is two part-time workers and a full-time program coordinator who handles programs for both Weedon Island and Brooker Creek preserves. Annual visitors have dropped by about 10,000.
Last year, budget shortfalls were so serious that officials warned they might have to close the Brooker Creek and Weedon Island preserves altogether.
That didn't happen. But the county collapsed its environmental management department into other county agencies and cut its environmental lands staff from 17 to six.
Looking for ways to support the preserve, the Friends contacted the Association of Nature Center Administrators for guidance. Four nature center leaders from the international nonprofit association visited the preserve in May. The consulting team interviewed employees, educators, volunteers and other community members and came up with some recommendations.
"We thought there was some operational entity that needed to come and take the lead and the county wasn't able to do it anymore," said team leader Tim Sandsmark, director of Lookout Mountain Nature Center and Preserve in Jefferson County, Colo.
Government nature center partnerships with "friends groups" or other nonprofits are not uncommon, said Sandsmark. In some cases, small groups help with gift shops or events. In others, they may provide half the revenue, he said.
The idea of such a group actually managing a nature preserve is "a little unique," Sandsmark said. But the consulting team found that the friends group could play a more important role.
The consulting team was impressed with the preserve, saying its environmental education center would be the envy of many centers across the nation. It also found that program participation was at healthy levels.
The Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve formed about 17 years ago as a watchdog group. Members chiefly engage in activities to support the preserve, its workers and volunteers.
Friends board member Craig Heugel, who managed the county's environmental lands program from 1992 to 2004, admits that it will be a huge challenge to transform from a support organization to one with a management role.
"We love the place and we don't want it to fail," said Heugel, who now works as an environmental educator. "We're probably more excited than scared."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.