Monday, March 4, 2013

Models for Veblen House--Lawrence Nature Center

Both Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen's wills refer to the Veblen House as the "house herein devised as a part of the proposed library and museum of Herrontown Woods." When they donated 81 acres of Herrontown Woods to the county, they stipulated that it be used "to stimulate and develop public appreciation of the values of wildlife and plants." At the time, Mercer County director of parks and rec, Richard J. Coffee, said of the new arboretum: "Eventually, we envision a nature museum, a system of trails through wooded areas, with trees and other plants labelled." He said that the county hoped to provide lectures and opportunities for nature study.

Though the county did not follow through, examples elsewhere show how it can be done.

Recently, former Lawrenceville mayor, Pam Mount, gave me a tour of the Lawrenceville Nature Center. Bought by Lawrenceville Township in 1998, the interior was stripped down to the studs and refinished. The work was done largely in-house, by public works staff who happened to have the necessary skills. Architectural drawings were provided pro bono.
The center is run by volunteers who organize programming.
One room is used for a library and nature museum.
Another works well for meetings and events.
Scouts and other groups added to the grounds, including a raingarden that receives water from the building's downspouts.
A butterfly garden went in on the other side, installed and maintained by volunteers.

The cost of renovating and running this nature center have been kept low by using existing staff, augmented by community volunteers. Money was spent on positive things--renovating, maintenance.

It may seem obvious that one should spend money on positive things, but all too often, when a house drops off a government's list of priorities, only what I call "negative money" can be spent. Negative money might take the form of expensive studies that predict very high costs for renovation, or on damage control following long periods of neglect.

The Lawrenceville Nature Center shows what can be done when a community approaches a challenge with a can-do spirit, and seeks creative, low-cost ways to fill a community need.

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