The Howard County Conservancy hit the big 2-5 last year: It’s now been a haven for the area’s nature lovers for a quarter-century, a garden of serenity and calm in a region of Maryland where the population has boomed since it opened its doors and pathways.

Operating for that length of time also often means that upgrades are needed, and there indeed is an expansion campaign underway at the Conservancy, with the goal of raising $1.8 million for renovations — in this case, for improvements to the Gudelsky Environmental Education Center. That would allow the nonprofit to host larger groups, and even multiple groups, at once.

The project would encompass increasing the environmental education space from 8,700 square feet to 12,000 square feet, most of which would be within the building, but with a segment opening into the existing John L. Clark Native Plant Garden. It also would entail adding a new community meeting room and a dedicated animal care area.

To date, the Conservancy has raised $700,000 via its “Next 25 Years” Capital Campaign, which isn’t a bad tally for “about two years” of requesting grants and donations, said Executive Director Meg Boyd, adding that “we hope to break ground in November and have the addition finished in April 2017.”

Seeking Funds

Located in Woodstock, just off of Route 99, the Conservancy offers four miles of trails that are available seven days a week, dawn to dusk, and also features “the only working blacksmith shop in Howard County,” said Boyd.

The Conservancy has already received considerable infusions from its members and supporters, as well as from the government and private enterprise, as its team works toward meeting its goal.

“We are also looking for a $250,000 state bond this year, and we have had good discussions with [Howard County Executive Allan] Kittleman about the county matching that figure. If the state and county come through, we’ll be at $1.2 million, and that would put us within reach of our goal to break ground this fall,” she said, and work on the project during what there is of an off-season at the Conservancy.

It also has received funding from several other sources, including the Gudelsky Foundation, W.R. Grace, M&T Bank, the state of Maryland and even $100,000 from an anonymous donor. When the big day comes, construction will be handled by Plano-Coudon, of Baltimore, which has pledged to donate pre-construction services.

As a confirmation of the Conservancy’s importance, Boyd noted the major recent gift of a three-year federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant of $350,000 “that will enable us to expand our Watershed Report Card,” through the Conservancy’s partnership with the Howard County Public School System.

Feeling the Green

Ned Tillman, sustainability adviser and author of Saving the Places we Love, has been involved with the Conservancy since its early days, serving most recently as a board member. He recalled the decision to build the Gudelsky Center, which “ended up costing a little more than $1 million,” he said, noting that the state and county contributed to the effort.

It was upon its completion that something unexpected happened.

“There was an explosion of activity there,” he said, “and suddenly, we were offering various types of programming, scheduling walks and hosting school groups. It turned out that we’d created what quickly became a hallmark in the county.”

And the locals have kept on coming. “Our school programs grew by 37% last year,” said Tillman, with a total of 23,625 student interactions from 169 school programs, which was largely due to the Watershed Report Card project. Also, attendees at public programs last year reached 3,500.

Those numbers make it sound like much of the local populace might agree with Tillman when he said, “Three of the greatest things in Howard County are its public nature centers,” which are the Conservancy, the county-run Robinson Nature Center and Belmont, the environmental programs for which is run by the Conservancy. “That just proves that people are treasuring green spaces more than ever, as density increases.

“We lose more green space every year,” he said, “so it becomes even more important to protect what we have and restore it.”

Today, Tomorrow

Craig Englehaupt, senior relationship manager with M&T Bank, has been on the Conservancy’s board for 10 years and is also optimistic about its future.

“It’s encouraging to get such positive early results. Meg has been extraordinary,” Englehaupt said. “As I got to know her, I knew she was a mother without even asking, because of the way she calmly handles a zillion things at once.”

It’s not easy just handling the day-to-day duties of the operation in the midst of such a campaign. “This isn’t like a normal annual fundraising operation, because $1.8 million is a heavy chunk of change,” Englehaupt said. “But we’re on pace to meet our goal of getting the shovels in the ground” by November.

That hopefully will be the case, even though Howard County hasn’t made a financial commitment. Not yet, anyway, according to County Executive Allan Kittleman.

“The Conservancy’s plans for expansion are exciting, and we appreciate their interest in continuing to serve the people of Howard County,” said Kittleman. “We met with four members of their leadership team this past week to discuss [the campaign] and hope they can assemble the funding they need; no decisions have been made so far by our administration concerning our ability to participate in this project.”

While the next few months will be telling when it comes to reaching the Conservancy’s goal, Tillman feels that it’ll happen. But when it does, a “bigger challenge” might await.

“That’s getting the next generation to get outside and see these places, when so many of them are so involved with the digital universe,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that our ancestors saved a number of these places for us. We have to do likewise and provide opportunities for them to fall in love with the natural universe.”