Madison Heights City Council approves nature center deal

Oakland County begins management of Suarez Friendship Woods Oct. 1

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published September 19, 2012

Fall Open House
Madison Heights will hold its 16th Fall Open House at the nature center, 30300 Hales, from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30. The privately funded, family-friendly event is free and features cider, doughnuts, hayrides, a string band, a petting farm, woodcarving demonstrations, and such activities for the kids as building birdhouses and bug houses. For more information or to help sponsor the event, call (248) 589-2294. To donate directly to the Fall Open House, write checks payable to the City of Madison Heights — Nature Center Open House, and send to Madison Heights City Hall, 300 W. 13 Mile, Madison Heights, MI 48071. There is also a donation box at the nature center.

A bit of history
Originally, Suarez Friendship Woods was Simonds Woods, nearly 36 acres owned by Lamphere Schools. In 1983, the city acquired the property with the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF). The nature center itself was built in 1995, partially funded by the Protecting Michigan’s Future Recreation Bond awarded the year before.

Helping hands
The following is a list of volunteers who helped keep the nature center open after staff was cut from the city budget. The list is not necessarily complete.
Marilyn Begeny
Larry Brown
Dennis Bykowski
Cheryl Charpentier-Hankins
Roberta Eggart
Kim Fletcher
Carrie Endean
George Hankins
Carlos Harp
Mary Harp
Dick Jackson
Deborah Jacques
Rose Klapchar
Jacob Kohler
Marj Kome
Marian Kremer
Fran Kwapis
Jean Linville
Thamin Muhi
Talley Madosky
Collette L. Matero
Joan Novey
Greg Novick
Andy McGillivray
Jim Owens
Pat Perlinski
Sue Price
Lila Richards
Tina Rojo
Margene Scott
Judy Simpson
Rob Smith
Siran Toukhanian
John Skosnik
Chuck Tretchler
Jerry Van Sice
Shirley Vettraino
Bryan Voss
Jack Widger

MADISON HEIGHTS — The last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place for the future of Madison Heights’ nature center. At their meeting Sept. 10, City Council approved a 25-year lease agreement with the county.

“Occasionally, we go through a process where there are pluses and minuses, but I see no negatives to this — this is a win-win,” said Mayor Pro Tem Robert Corbett. “It’s a statement by the county in terms of its commitment to countywide services. And to the residents of Madison Heights, it assures that this inheritance will be passed on and still be here for another generation.”

Starting Oct. 1, Oakland County Parks and Recreation (OCPRC) will manage the newly named Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods. The deal includes nearly 38 acres of woods and more than 1.3 miles of paved trails. The nature center is located at 30300 Hales, south of 13 Mile and west of Dequindre.

The city has final approval of all major developments at the park. OCPRC will budget $225,000 per year for operations, maintenance and programming. Madison Heights will pay $8,000 per year toward utilities, plus half the cost of any major maintenance or construction projects. The county picks up the other half and also handles such expenses as new signage, fence work and a structured volunteer program.

OCPRC plans to increase hours of operation at the nature center, with a full-time naturalist and two part-time seasonal specialists, supported by park maintenance staff. A natural resources manager will monitor the woodland ecosystem to ensure its health and to protect it against invasive species. Improvements to the trails are planned, and programming will be expanded so that educational activities can take place out in the field and no longer be limited to the nature center itself.

The Oakland County Board of Commissioners approved their end of the deal in August, following votes by their subcommittees over the summer. The county sees the nature center as the perfect supplement to other facilities in Red Oaks County Park, such as the nearby water park, dog park, golf course and soccer complex.

“I got such a charge out of it, to see the (city and county) agencies work together and to see everyone come together on a common idea,” said City Councilman Bob Gettings. “This is something that will be a jewel for the city for a long time.”

The partnership with the county comes as a great relief to the city. Faced with falling property values and reduced state support, Madison Heights had to cut staffing from the nature center’s budget in 2010. A dedicated team of volunteers stepped in to maintain the facilities and a meet-and-greet function on a reduced schedule of four-hour shifts.

One of them was Judy Simpson, of Madison Heights, a volunteer of 14 years.

“I was looking for another way to spend my time,” Simpson said. “And I’m not a good nature person like some of the volunteers who have been schoolteachers and such. Still, I could go upstairs, organize and sweep, and wash windows. A lot of people don’t like to do those things, but I’d wash the dishes, make coffee, clean the refrigerator — whatever needed to be done.”

Jean Linville, of Madison Heights, a Gold Star Mother and former city employee, has volunteered at the nature center for around 17 years. She likes introducing guests to the nature center’s 3-foot-long Eastern fox snake, letting it slither in and out of her sleeves.

“I’m almost 82, and I never picked up a snake until I was at the nature center,” Linville said. “They’re not bad at all!”

Inside the building, there is a tree house and a pond with turtles, an apiary thrumming with bees and taxidermy mounts lining the walls. A separate room screens education videos. And then there’s the scenery outside — surrounded by greenery, the city suddenly seems miles away. Many people like to walk the trails or go bird watching early in the morning.

“You can look out the front window (of the nature center) and see all of the foliage out there,” Linville said. “In the wintertime, it’s absolutely beautiful with all of the white snow — absolutely gorgeous. And we had three people come in today (Sept. 7) and say they saw deer. One lady even had a picture on her cellphone.”

City officials say they can’t thank them and the other volunteers enough. City Councilwoman Margene Scott has put in more than 700 hours herself.

“It’s time that I’ve cherished,” Scott said. “When we thought we were going to close (the nature center) and maybe lose it, it was devastating to all of us. The children are so excited when they come there with their moms and dads, and usually throw a fit when they have to leave. It’s a haven for everybody, and a spot where we can enjoy nature and teach our scouts what it’s all about, and where our children can grow up in appreciation of the environment.”

She thanked the volunteers, the city, the county, and Madison Heights resident and Oakland County Commissioner Gary McGillivray, who pushed for the cause. The nature center attracts about 30,000 visitors a year from Oakland and Macomb counties, and it’s expected that even more people will visit with the county’s regionalization of the center.

The county is inviting the current volunteers to stay on board. As part of the structured volunteer program, they can continue to help out at the nature center, as well as other Red Oaks facilities. The program is open to residents and non-residents alike.

The city manager and council members were smiling at the Sept. 10 council meeting, and everyone seemed relieved to have finalized the deal.

“To me, it’s like Christmas,” Scott said. “We finally got what we wanted for so long.”

The Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods, as it will be known starting Oct. 1, is at 30300 Hales, south of 13 Mile and west of Dequindre.