PRB Articles


From Grazing To Gazing

From Grazing To Gazing

By Hilda McShane
Photos Courtesy Of Genesee County Parks, Flint, Mi.

Fifty years ago, Forbes and Martha Merkley ran a successful dairy farm just a few minutes east of downtown Flint, Mich. It was a magnificent spread of land, a gently rolling landscape with open meadows, mature forests, wetlands, and ponds. In the 1960s Genesee County commissioners were looking for property to convert to parkland, and the Merkleys were making plans to retire. It was the perfect partnership.

The Merkleys donated 383 acres to the county with instructions for its development; the family also included a trust fund to help develop and sustain the gift. Using a combination of their names, the land became For-Mar Nature Preserve and Arboretum. It opened in 1970.

Martha Merkley was quite specific in designating how the property was to be used. A lover of nature and wildlife, she wanted part of the land to become a nature preserve. Since all of the acreage had been used for field crops and pasture, she also decided that a good many trees should be planted to create an arboretum. In fact, for the first 10 years, all funds from the trust were to be used only to purchase trees so the arboretum would be established quickly.

Kearsley Creek meanders through the property, which offers a natural way to divide the preserve from the arboretum. Martha’s “vernal pond” was enlarged, and a second pond was created.

Martha lived for more than 15 years after For-Mar opened, and she watched her dairy farm evolve into a beloved community resource. In the ensuing 40 years, the city and its suburbs have spread, and For-Mar has become an urban oasis with 7 miles of hiking trails and barrier-free walkways, mature ponds, a sugar bush, a museum, a bio-diverse arboretum, and a large visitor center. In this peaceful setting, members of the community can get away from all that feels hurried and demanding and replace that with a quiet retreat.

Bringing The Past Forward
While the Merkleys’ home was very nice, it was not configured for an education center or offices, and Martha had put restrictions on its use. Eventually the house was taken down, and a large mantle was saved and installed in the new visitor center, along with a photo of one of the Merkleys’ champion dairy cows.

The original horse barn is now used as a maintenance facility, and an old Quonset-style building is used for storage.

Full Speed Ahead
The visitor center, built in 1995, has classroom space, plus displays with dozens of live and mounted plants and animals. Hands-on activities help nature lovers of all ages discover the remarkable world outdoors—from tiny insects to towering trees—and the role that each plays in maintaining a healthy environment.

Visitors love the fascinating bee observation hive inside the center, which includes a tunnel to the outside so visitors can watch up close the life cycles of the bees unfold.

Listening To Customers
Staff members at For-Mar provide about 1,000 programs, many of which are held at the visitor center and around the grounds, for adults and children annually. Hundreds of other presentations are part of a busy “For-Mar on the Road” outreach program that travels to nearby public schools and county parks; there are special-needs programs and a gardening-initiative program for children.

Approximately 35,000 people attend For-Mar’s programs each year. Topics are developed, in large part, in response to customer requests and surveys. Marketing staff members also monitor several social-media sites to see what people are saying about the programs. For example, when parents and caregivers asked for a nature program for small children, staff created “Knee-High Naturalists” for little ones 3 to 6 years old. It has been very successful, and as children who participated became older, staff developed a new series called “Wild Adventures” for children ages 7 to 12.

When the center noted that many children don’t know where their food comes from and have never grown a garden, staff members created the “Truck Farm”—a truck with a garden planted in the bed. The truck is driven to several locations to offer classes on urban agriculture and to demonstrate how easy it is to grow food in a small space.

When several visitors asked about honoring deceased loved ones at For-Mar, a quiet memorial area was created, containing a variety of trees purchased by individuals in memory of their loved ones.

All of this is accomplished with two full-time positions—a naturalist and a horticulturist—and a collection of seasonal staff.

Staying In Touch And Other Marketing Marvels
Being big believers in carefully crafted surveys, the staff uses the information to help develop programs in response to visitors’ interests. The surveys also are used to compile specific demographics for targeted email lists. The results are then partnered with focused CRMs, Facebook posts, the director’s blog, and a website to communicate frequently with visitors and partners.

Even the gift shop in For-mar’s center is a way of connecting with visitors. Many of the products relate to the programs enjoyed at For-Mar, such as butterfly nets and field guides. Locally made products such as honey from the beekeeper and maple syrup also help to further connect visitors to the community.

Bottom Line
Operational support for For-Mar comes from a variety of sources. The Merkley Trust covers approximately one-third of the budget, while funds received from a property-tax millage supply another 51 percent. Grants and partnerships provide an average of 22 percent.

While many of the educational programs are free, a small fee is charged for some, which also contributes to the revenue.

Hilda McShane is the marketing specialist for the Genesee County Parks. Reach her at hmcshane@gcparks.org .

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Know your customers. Don’t make assumptions. Survey them! Ask for the ages of people coming to the park, ZIP codes, the best method to contact them. Then use that information to customize messages to visitors.

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