WESTAMPTON TOWNSHIP — The Rancocas Nature Center, which until a few days ago was scheduled to close as of New Year’s Day, has been given a reprieve that Burlington County residents and officials hope will become permanent.
The New Jersey Audubon Society, which operates the 135-acre facility in Westampton Township near Mount Holly, announced last month that it would shut the 35-year-old center along with the Weis Ecology Center in Ringwood, Passaic County, to save money.
The group also said it would make its Nature Center of Cape May a seasonal facility by closing it to the public until April 15.
Gretchen Whitman, who directs the Nature Center of Cape May on the banks of Cape May Harbor, said economic realities associated with an extended recession and funding shortfalls resulted in the winter closure, a reduction in staff and less public access to the waterfront location in the coming months.
Whitman, however, is optimistic the center will reopen April 15 with a full slate of spring programs, as well as the popular events such as Harbor Fest, Paddle for a Purpose and Harbor Safaris. The June Harbor Fest event has drawn thousands of people in the past.
“We are still open for business and very optimistic for a successful spring and summer 2013 season,” Whitman said.
She also made an appeal to the community for support, both moral and financial, and asked the public for ideas for the future. Whitman is also looking for volunteers and teachers to help when they do reopen.
She can be reached at 609-898-8848 or by email at gretchen.Whitman@njaudubon.org
After a “really positive” meeting with about 65 Audubon members at Rancocas Nature Center on Friday, the organization’s officials said they would delay closing Rancocas until April 1.
Local officials and community volunteers have three months to raise the $55,000 needed to keep the center open the rest of the year and create a sustainability plan, said Eric Stiles, president of the nonprofit nature and conservancy group, which has no affiliation with the National Audubon Society.
Stiles said the meeting was called because of feedback the organization received about the imminent closure. He said he and others are now “cautiously optimistic” that officials and volunteers can come up with the money to keep the place open. A decline in school group visits there during the past year put it in the red.
With a $6 million annual operating budget in 2012, New Jersey Audubon served 90,000 visitors at its 11 facilities. About 75,000 people — including 40,000 children — sign up for programs offered by the group, such as its summer camp programs, hikes and kayak tours, Stiles said.
School districts have cut field trips, mostly because of transportation costs, so Audubon has begun formulating a plan to connect the center with students via the Internet in a curriculum called Eco-Schools, in collaboration with the National Wildlife Fund and the municipal eco-certification program Sustainable Jersey.
But others who call Rancocas a “hidden gem” and a “community asset” say they would like to see the Burlington County facility continue to connect residents with the natural world in a literal, rather than virtual, way. The site includes nature trails, gardens and ponds, a picnic area, museum and small gift shop.
“I feel we need to do our level best to keep Rancocas Nature Center open as a viable entity,” Westampton Township Committeeman C. Andre Daniels said. “It has been here a long time, and it has been one of our best-kept little secrets , .... which has been the downside for the place, I think. The upside is that the threat of closure has called attention to one of the few pristine places left in South Jersey, and I think that will motivate people to get involved.”
Daniels said local officials plan to talk with state and county agencies to “work as collaborative partners” to aid the center through increased marketing efforts and community involvement.
That’s good news for Westampton residents such as Susan Knispel, a New Jersey Audubon member who attended Friday’s meeting to voice concern about the closure.
“It happened so fast that they announced the closure, it really took a lot of people by surprise,” Knispel said. “But I think the meeting was positive because it gave us all a chance to express our concern and our interest in doing something to save the nature center.”
Knispel, who said she had enjoyed the nature center for the 25 years she had lived in Westampton and found it one of her favorite places to take her 11-year-old daughter, who has attended summer camp there, said she planned to organize community fundraisers to help save it.
“We want to see what the local and county officials plan to do, but we’re looking for others from the community to come forward to offer suggestions on how to help. ... We only have three months to get this done.”
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Press of Atlantic City Staff Writer Rich Degener contributed to this report.