By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"For 24 years," says Donohue, "we've been a hand-to-mouth organization that has done little more than simply manage to exist. For the first time, I now see that changing for the better."
A former executive director of the center himself, Donohue says the goal is to raise a minimum of three years' operational financing in the next fiscal year. "By doing that, by getting into a position where we aren't always feeling strapped for money and forced to delay things that need immediate attention, I think we can really begin making strides."
"And," he adds, "maybe then we can pass on the Observer's annual 'Dallas' Best-Kept Secret' award to someone else."
Says Hutson: "For some time, the attitude toward the Nature Center had become one of 'if people come, fine; if they don't, that's fine too.' We're no longer thinking that way."
Located on what was once a ranch owned by Dallas businessman and ambassador to Japan, Clayton Wyman, the land was purchased in the early '70s by Fox & Jacobs, a company that envisioned an ambitious housing development. Because of the rough terrain, developers soon abandoned their home-building idea and opted to turn the property into a non-profit environmental research facility that would also be available to the public. In 1975, the property was turned over to the non-profit Greenhills Foundation, and the Greenhills Experimental Center opened its doors. In 1987, the name was changed to the Dallas Nature Center.
Despite the fact it remains a legitimate contender for any local best-kept secret prize, the center annually hosts 80,000 to 100,000 visitors.
"Last year alone," says Hutson, "we had visitors from 35 states and 11 foreign countries. What that tells me is that people interested in what we have to offer have heard good things about us."
That the center's volunteer force has doubled since he took over is no small testimony to Hutson's persuasiveness. "You take away the tremendous amount of volunteer help we get," he says, "and we'd be out of business." TXU employees, he notes, have spent long weekends improving the hiking trails and remodeling a temporary educational room that has sufficed while the new building is being completed; SMU students have volunteered time for mowing, weeding, and trash pickups; Boy Scouts have blazed new trails, seen to erosion control on others, and helped establish a new picnic area. Credit for new trail signs, benches and directional maps is spread among local corporate employees, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Dallas County jail inmates, and myriad other community service volunteers.
The new director estimates that in the past two years, the Center has seen $769,000 worth of improvements--$300,000 of it the result of volunteer work.
Jim Varnum, an engineering instructor at Richland College and a Nature Center volunteer for 16 years, says he's seen a big change in the past two years. "Bryan Hutson was just the person we needed," he says. "When workers give of their time, they want to eventually be able to see that they're participating in making something better."