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Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids to lay off half its staff as pandemic fallout continues

Wikimedia Commons/Cklane90

The popular Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids plans to lay off half its staff at the end of the month.

Blandford has been growing since the 1950s, when Mary Jane Dockeray, a nature lecturer at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, convinced the land owner to donate 17 acres to start the nature center. Blandford now includes 264 acres of trails, fields, farmland and a school, operated by Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Blandford estimates 60,000 people visit the property each year, and those visits didn’t stop when the pandemic started.

“Things have been really busy for the last 12 weeks or so,” says Jason Meyer, Blandford’s president and CEO. “Everbody’s been wanting to get outside, so our trails have been overrun with people, which is a great thing to see.”

But while plenty of people have been coming to enjoy the nature at Blandford, the events, field trips and camps that generate revenue have all been canceled.

"[W]e're losing out on serving 15,000 kids and about $300,000 worth of earned revenue," says Jason Meyer of Blandford Nature Center.

Meyer says it started with the annual Sugarbush Festival, Blandford’s largest event, which had to be canceled in May. Then school field trips were canceled. Then spring break camps, followed by summer camps.

“And now, talking to local school districts, it looks like even field trips in the fall probably aren’t going to be happening,” Meyer says. “So all told, we’re losing out on serving 15,000 kids and about $300,000 worth of earned revenue.”

Blandford reported total revenue of more than $2 million in 2018.

Meyer says the non-profit has already taken advantage of programs meant to help organizations get through the pandemic shut downs. He says Blandford received $10,000 from the Michigan Economic Development Council and more than $100,000 from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

But he says that money only helped for the first few months. As of the end of June, Meyer said Blandford can no longer avoid layoffs. Seventeen of 34 employees will be let go.

Meyer says he hopes camps, field trips and events can all resume in 2021, and the positions can be brought back.

“But the reality is, Blandford was rocking and rolling over the last five years,” Meyer says. “We’re just really going to have to slow down and rebuild from this.”

Even with the dramatic cutbacks, a few things won't be changing at Blandford. Meyer says the trails will remain open, and Blandford's wildlife rescue program will continue.

"The animals are fine," Meyer says.

Meyer says Blandford continues to accept donations from the community to fund operations.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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