News that the city of Southlake is taking over the role of managing the Bob Jones Nature Center and Preserve has residents questioning the future of that site and its programs.
The 758-acre preserve sprawls across the north side of Southlake, adjacent to Lake Grapevine. It is a combination of land owned by the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The site also includes a renovated home that serves as the nature center.
Until Feb. 7, the nature center and its programs were run by a local nonprofit, the Bob Jones Nature Center Organization. But questions about operations and visitor rates prompted the nonprofit to offer its resignation. The city accepted.
“I personally think we need to find a different way to operate it, so that it ... starts to become really successful,” Mayor Laura Hill said during a City Council meeting last fall.
Hill said she wants to find ways to bring more attention to the Bob Jones Nature Center and Preserve.
Southlake officials are now considering ways to improve the nature center as the nonprofit, whose existence is tied to the facility, figures out its future role with the center.
Nonprofit board President Debra Edmondson said she felt pressure and a lack of support from City Council and the mayor.
“We just felt that it was not an atmosphere that we could continue to work under,” she said.
Since 2012, the nonprofit managed the nature center. It received an annual payment of $100,000 from the city. It also raised revenue through programs, events and membership dues.
In 2018, the nonprofit requested a longer contract with the city along with $20,000 more per year. City Council opted to conduct a management review before making that commitment. A consultant recommended adding specific performance goals to the contract.
City Council members Christopher Archer and Shawn McCaskill both sat on the nonprofit’s board of directors when it decided to request more funding. They recused themselves from those discussions so they could vote as part of City Council.
Southlake also put out a survey about the nature center to thousands of citizens. It received 69 responses. While not statistically valid, the survey did give the city some general feedback, Southlake Community Services Director Chris Tribble said.
The results were presented during a Nov. 6 meeting. Hill expressed concern over the nature center’s lack of visitors compared with the amount of taxpayers’ money the city invests each year.
Including $100,000 per year from the city, the nonprofit brought in nearly $1.19 million from 2013-17, according to its federal tax filings. Documents also indicate its expenses totaled about $1.13 million over the same time period.
Shortly after that Nov. 6 meeting, the nonprofit board sent the city a letter offering to step down.
Edmondson said the survey was not a fair representation of the nature center’s visibility, and it was doing well considering its size and resources.
“You also have to look at the limitations we were dealing with,” she said.
Southlake announced the management change on Facebook in December. The nonprofit also sent letters notifying parents.
Carrollton resident Crystal Madden said the Cross Timbers Forest Preschool at the nature center was exactly the kind of innovative, high-quality education she wanted for her young children.
But shortly after the spring semester began, Madden received a letter Jan. 19 from the Bob Jones Nature Center Organization. It notified her that the nature center would transition to city management and that refunds were available for classes after Feb. 6.
“Based on the tone of the letter, it wasn’t really clear if the program was going to continue,” she said. “The fact that they were giving a refund almost implied the school was shutting down.”
After multiple inquiries, Madden said she received an email response from Southlake on Jan. 28. It confirmed the preschool would continue as planned. But she said she thought the transition was poorly executed because of the short notice.
Tribble said city staff was working to see what commitments the nonprofit had made prior to the transition, so they could balance those with the city’s existing resources.
“Meanwhile, children who were involved in this school and the Home Away From Home School program were kind of left in the lurch,” Madden said.
Southlake offered preschool parents a choice of refunds, credit for future programs or the option to finish the semester.
After the city took over management, it canceled two homeschool classes at the nature center that averaged four students per class. They could potentially return at a later date, said Pilar Schank, deputy director of public relations for Southlake.
Southlake city staff have also analyzed how other regional nature centers are being operated and whether City Council could apply those ideas to its programs, Tribble said. They looked at facilities like the River Legacy Living Science Center in Arlington.
River Legacy is older and bigger, and it has more long-term, consistent leadership, said Robin Swindle, a former Bob Jones Nature Center instructor who now works with River Legacy. It also benefits from a standing contract with Arlington ISD. The school district pays for set field trips to the science center every year.
“It’s one of their bigger contracts,” Swindle said.
Going forward, it would be beneficial for the city to pursue a partnership with Carroll ISD, she said.
CISD administrator Julie Thannum said the school district has never been approached about such a collaboration to her knowledge.
Working with CISD would be a great opportunity to teach students about the ecosystem and the history of the land, which is named after former slave-turned-landowner John Dolford “Bob” Jones, Swindle said.
The nonprofit’s board of directors did have conversations with CISD Superintendent David Faltys about partnering with Carroll ISD on programs, Edmondson said. Faltys is a former nonprofit board member and a current honorary member who does not vote on board matters.
Ultimately, no standing partnership resulted from those discussions because the nature center is not within the school district, Edmondson said. But students from CISD and other school districts did periodically visit the nature center for field trips.
City Council has not discussed future years’ programming or other changes yet, but the transition will not affect Southlake financially for fiscal year 2018-19, McCaskill said.
Southlake’s current five-year capital plan includes outdoor classrooms and a new nature center building. Projects will be reviewed and implemented as funding becomes available.
Southlake cannot sustain current programs unless they allocate more money for it, Edmondson said. She is unsure how the nonprofit will be involved moving forward, whether it will dissolve, direct its efforts to another cause or support the nature center in another way.
In an email response, Hill said she anticipates more opportunities for visitors in the future. The city can use its online following and business community to promote the nature center and develop corporate sponsorships.
“There is great synergy now to expand upon the work of the current Bob Jones Nature Center offerings and incorporate programs that have a greater reach,” she said in the email. “At the end of the day, all that matters is that we can operate this unique, special corner of Southlake and do it in a fiscally conservative way.”
Southlake should continue education programs and preservation of the land in its historical and ecological context, said William Jones, grandson of the eponymous Bob Jones.
“It’s an important part of the Texas culture [and] of American history that needs to be preserved,” he said.