NEWS

Needed at Cumming: A white knight

Julie Sherwood

The 800-acre Cumming Nature Center off Gulick Road in South Bristol could get needed building repairs, additional staff and a lot more use if Ontario County and the Rochester Museum and Science Center can persuade a third party to become involved.

Discussions were held a few years ago with land-conservation groups in hopes of a sale and then a subsequent transfer of ownership of the property to Ontario County. Currently, the center gets its money from the museum, rental fees and public and private donations. The budget is so strapped that, for the most part, the center is only open on weekends and has only one full-time employee.

Ontario County currently plays no role. However, the county has budgeted $30,000 to maintain the property in 2008; an additional $1 million is set aside to care for it through 2013.

But there’s a catch.

“It’s all contingent on the project happening,” said Kris Hughes, county director of planning.

The project he envisions would involve the county owning the site and maintaining it as a nature center; another entity would purchase the property, which is assessed at $1,869,200.

But all seems quiet on that front. Neither Hughes nor the museum would name who that third-party purchaser might be.

The local chapters of two conservation groups were involved in talks about the plan more than a year ago. Zachary Odell, director of land protection for the Nature Conservancy, recalled discussions about 18 months ago, though they were “preliminary” and he didn’t know what has transpired since then, he said. “At this point, we have received no further request for participation,” said Odell.

The Rochester Museum and Science Center has “done a great job of managing the property,” added Odell. He explained that under the museum’s ownership, the center is being preserved, so the Nature Conservancy doesn’t sense an urgent need to buy the property.

Betsy Landre, senior field representative for Finger Lakes Land Trust, said the land trust was also involved in discussions about Cumming Nature Center a while back but has not been in any recent talks as far as she knows. Andy Zepp, land trust executive director, was on the road Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

“We are very supportive of permanent preservation” in general, said Landre. As for Cumming Nature Center, “we are not taking a lead role as the conservation organization.”

As for the museum, it’s just as enthusiastic as the county for a change in the status quo at the nature center. “We are eager to be a good partner with Ontario County,” said Kate Bennett, Rochester Museum and Science Center director.

Meanwhile, nature center Director David Gotham said the center continues to be open on the weekends with its two employees — he is full-time, Environmental Educator Emily Stoehr is part-time. Volunteers help out, and groups can rent the center for special programs and events during the week. The center has a natural-history museum and visitors’ center, themed trails for hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, a beaver pond, log cabin, and a sugarhouse.

Gotham, the center’s director since 1978, recalled back in the 1980s when the center was open every day and operated with 16 full-time staff. “It was a high point,” said Gotham, who would like the center to see more activity.

Cumming had fallen on hard times a few years ago when Monroe County cut its contributions to the museum, which has run the nature preserve for 34 years. On top of Monroe County's budget cuts, a few years ago the Marcus Whitman School District discontinued its $30,000 annual lease with Cumming for the school’s Environmental Classroom Opportunity program, which moved to a site in Branchport.

The museum is now working to beef up the number of programs and do maintenance projects when possible, said Gotham, a handyman who does much of the maintenance himself, such as fixing a hot-water pump right before Christmas.

The center’s 8,800-square-foot museum needs roof work, a fresh stain put to its cedar exterior and other repairs, he said.

Hughes said he is hopeful “something will happen in ’08” to seal a deal.

Contact Julie Sherwood at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 263, or at jsherwood@mpnewspapers.com.