Ford Nature Center reopens
$4M renovation adds new features
YOUNGSTOWN — After picking up a small fishing rod and line, Nico Rogers didn’t catch any trout or bass, but he did reel in much excitement and anticipation.
“I think it’s amazing and extraordinary,” Nico, 9, of Boardman, said. “You can teach kids about nature. It feels great because there are so many new things, and things to experiment with.”
The Boardman Center Middle School student was referring to the reopened Ford Nature Center on Old Furnace Road in Mill Creek Park, which was the site of a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house Saturday.
The event also coincided with Earth Day.
The stately building, which was constructed in 1913 and became a nature center in the early 1970s, closed in February 2020 to undergo about $4 million in renovations — work that was ongoing through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the changes and additions left an impression on Nico, whose regular interactions with the park include playing sports and birdwatching.
“What a gift to give to the community,” the boy’s mother, Melissa Rogers, said.
In addition to adding new features, a top priority of the project was to rehabilitate and preserve many of the original historic and architectural components, Justin Rogers, the park’s planning and operations director, noted.
Rogers also is Nico’s father.
New portions include a large, bright and airy exhibition hall on the lowest level, two multi-use classrooms in the education building next door and a rooftop garden, Justin Rogers explained. The renovations also entail a history room, a gift shop, two outdoor classrooms, the paved Axtman Trail and a new conference room and offices for teachers and staff to plan educational programs.
Rogers also thanked the hundreds of people who donated money, time and talents to the project.
“We’re thrilled to have it finally finished and have it be an asset to the community for generations to come,” Aaron Young, Mill Creek MetroParks’ executive director, said.
Young noted that $3 million of the $4 million for the project came from private philanthropy, and the rest from Mill Creek MetroParks.
The exhibition hall area, which looks out onto a wildflower meadow and hiking trails, features an array of high-tech, interactive exhibits and poster boards that include information on different native trees, the wetlands area, the Mill Creek Watershed and park geology. Also in the room is an exhibit about Volney Rogers, the well-known lawyer who was pivotal in transforming the park in the late 1800s.
Adding to the overall greenery is the Green Roof Plaza, which has a square garden filled with small-leafed succulents and sedums, hydrangeas and rhizomes, and requires little maintenance. The garden was carefully crafted with rubber layers for additional protection and needs proper drainage, Brian Keith, the park’s operations supervisor, explained.
The square plot also is a microcosm of the Living Roof, a 454,000-square-foot drought-resistant garden atop the Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge Center in Dearborn, Mich., Keith noted.
“To me, it’s just a place for relaxation,” Nancy Brundage said about Nancy’s Nook, a small window-filled room that overlooks a few hiking trails as well as the wildflower meadow and several bird feeders and boxes at the rear of the nature center.
The space was named in honor of Brundage, who was one of the nature center project’s initial donors and who began volunteering for the park in the mid-1980s. For 27 years, she has conducted bird and nature walks; her volunteer efforts also have included booking school groups and answering calls, and she still serves as a volunteer naturalist, Brundage said.
Also happy with the reopening was Eric Cromwell of Poland, who worked three or four years as an attendant at the original Ford Nature Center.
“I’m glad to see they kept a lot of the historical nature of the house,” said Cromwell, who earned a degree in natural resources from Hocking College in Nelsonville.
Also on hand Saturday was Ed Komara, who runs a traveling reptile educational program called Komara Outdoors. Komara had in one of the indoor classrooms an exhibit that included a 120-pound alligator snapping turtle, a leopard tortoise and other animals.
“I came here as a kid to learn about nature and I wanted her to learn about nature,” Eric Cappy of Boardman said, referring to his daughter Ariana McCall-Cappy, 7, who was intrigued by the reptiles.