Heartland Forest growing
Dan Bouwman, founder and president of Heartland Forest, with a drawing showing what the proposed indoor nature centre will look like in the south end of the city. City council amended its zoning bylaw to allow the charitable organization to build the facility. PHOTO: MIKE DIBATTISTA /NIAGARA FALLS REVIEW
If it gets support from city council Tuesday, Heartland Forest will be one step closer to building a new 1,400-square-metre museum and interpretative centre.
The charitable organization, run by corporate and private donations, will ask city hall to amend its zoning bylaw to allow the construction of a multi-purpose nature building on land near the corner of Kalar and Brown rds.
A public meeting, giving residents a chance to comment on the proposal, is scheduled to take place in council chambers around 6:30 p.m. No neighbours attended an open house in April to hear about the proposal or to ask questions.
“To make nature accessible to all, which is our mandate, it was really important to us to have a permanent facility here with washrooms and everything so that we can house our activities inside,” said Elisabeth Graham, executive director at Heartland Forest.
The group manages 93 acres of land in the south end of the city. It has only one indoor facility on its property, a double portable classroom, where children are educated about nature and its creatures.
“Currently, we’re only able to do that on a seasonal basis, so individuals who are in a scooter, or in a wheelchair, or even have any mobility impairments at all, are unable to access this during probably three-to-four months of the year,” said Graham.
“We have our treehouse that we’ll continue to use as an outdoor learning station. And we have several other spots that we use, but in terms of an indoor facility, this is it.”
Around 75% of the new building cost — $1.6 million — will be paid through a grant Heartland Forest received from a federal program called the Enabling Accessibility Fund.
The organization has been recognized for its all-inclusive environment, ranging from its wheelchair-accessible swings and ramps to its tree house, fishing pond and mini-putt station. Heartland Forest was one of just five groups awarded money through the federal fund. More than 350 applications were received across Canada.
“This portable classroom is way too small. That’s why we’re looking forward to having this new building,” said Dan Bouwman, founder and president of Heartland Forest.
“Last week there were four schools in one day where we did environmental education. One day we had over 150 children and then the parents come along and the grandparents come along, the teachers come along, so the place was packed all week.”
Bouwman said it has been his dream to build a nature centre.
“Preserving and educating the children about the environment is very important, and then to make it all fully accessible for all people — that’s been a dream of mine for a long time,” he said.
“It’s been since 2004 I’ve been going at this. The smiles that we put on people’s faces around here, it’s just overwhelming. It keeps me young.”
Graham said the new facility will house a discovery atrium with seating for up to 150 people.
“It’s going to have exhibits. We’re going to have a nice, little nature store and a snack bar just off to the side,” she said.
“We’ll have three wings. One of the wings is our forest discovery classroom. That’s where we can have our indoor learning stations.
“In another wing we’ll have what we’re calling Exploring the Arts. We’ll have an arts studio with a wood-working shop.
“We have a third wing that’s going to be versatile. We can host seminars, workshops. It can be opened up and it can just be part of the discovery atrium so that we can have larger groups.”
Graham said some land is being cleared for the new building, while construction is expected to begin shortly after site plans and building permits are submitted.
Bouwman said governments and the business community have long supported Heartland Forest. He said it’s because of that support the nature group has expanded over the years.
“It’s just amazing how people tap into what we do,” he said. “And it’s because it’s for all people. We don’t single anybody out.”