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Grand Rapids nonprofit plans new, bigger visitor center

Monica Scott
Grand Rapids Press

Grand Rapids — Blandford Nature Center will hold a groundbreaking ceremony next month for the new Mary Jane Dockeray Visitor Center, according to the Growing Up Blandford Campaign.

Dockeray founded the nonprofit, which offers a wide variety of outdoor educational and community programs, in 1964.

The event is supposed to give the community a sneak peek at all the campaign’s plans and a chance to support the center. The campaign to raise $10.3 million — $3.3 million for the visitor center and $7 million for an endowment — has been underway for a year. An announcement will be made about the funding status, organizers said.

“The vision of this place started with one person, now it is all of ours to take care of moving forward,” said Jason Meyer, president and CEO of Blandford Nature Center.

“For decades, Mary Jane was Blandford and she put nature front and center for so many people. Her legacy depends on what lens you want to look through.”

In 2015, the center had 45,000 visitors, including 13,000 children. The center started with only 10 acres and has grown to 143 acres, leased from the city. The land and wildlife is seen as a perfect backdrop to provide quality environmental education and community programs.

The new Mary Jane Dockeray Visitor Center will be 11,000 square feet and provide a flexible 300-seat auditorium that will help solve the problem of Blandford being forced to turn groups away due to capacity constraints. The facility also will have a more accessible design and prominent space for “wildlife ambassadors” engaging animals that can’t be returned to the wild. The center will have potential rental income through weddings, corporate retreats, speakers and other events.

“The current visitor center is 8,000-square-feet and not accessible to everyone,” said Meyer. “We are going to build a new center that better fits our needs and turn the current center into pavilion with teaching space.”

Meyer said Dockeray lived just down the street from the land that would become Blandford and loved visiting the space. He said she worked for the Grand Rapids Public Museum in a nature-oriented job, and school groups would often reach out for an environmental experience.

Meyer said Dockeray still comes in every Wednesday to visit and assist as needed.

The groundbreaking ceremony is at 4 p.m. on March 8. Dockeray’s 89th birthday party will occur afterward at the Highlands Golf Course.