Plans to move a popular outdoor education program from nature centres to conservation areas has local leaders worried about the future of App’s Mill.
Brantford Mayor Kevin Davis and Brant County Councillor David Miller raised concerns at the Oct. 27 Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) general membership meeting. They were told the move would provide greater alignment with other GRCA programs, generate operational efficiencies and could generate additional revenue.
The GRCA has four nature centres on properties separate from conservation areas including App’s Mill. At present, there are no plans to close any of the nature centres including App’s Mill at 308 Robinson Rd.
But Davis said moving outdoor education to conservation areas raises an important question.
What will happen to the nature centres if the proposal is implemented?
“I’m very concerned about being asked to support this when it’s not exactly clear what’s going to be happening in the future; what might be happening to the nature centre,” Davis said. “I understand the need to do this and to do it quickly given the regulatory changes imposed on us.”
But Davis said the proposal could involve the closing of the beloved App’s Mill.
It would be rash of the GRCA board to radically change a program which could impact the nature centres without first having discussions with municipalities, Davis said.
As a result of Davis’s concerns, the general membership voted to defer a decision on the proposal until January 2024. The deferral gives municipalities time to provide input on the issue.
Donated by SC Johnson, App’s Mill is surrounded by 100 hectares of mature forests, fields and wetlands. The outdoor education program has been delivered to students since the 1970s and continues to be a popular program in Brantford and Brant County.
About 160 classes – 3,700 Grand Erie District School Board elementary students – will visit App’s Mill during the 2023-24 school year. Students from the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board will also visit the centre.
“I don’t know about other nature centres but I do know that App’s Mill is a jewel in our area,” said Miller, who represents Brant County on the GRCA board. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to our area.
“Tons of kids go through there and enjoy it. It’s just too important to close.”
The proposal follows a review of the program by GRCA officials. The review was prompted by legislative change brought in by the provincial government.
The program costs close to $1 million a year and is expected to cost about $1.048 million in 2024.
The bulk of the funding comes from agreements with school boards in the GRCA watershed. Most of the remaining funds – about $310,000 – comes from money collected from municipalities by the conservation authority.
The legislative change prevents conservation authorities from using municipal funds to support programs such as outdoor education unless some other cost-apportioning agreements with individual municipalities are reached. That change, which comes into effect Jan. 1, 2024, leaves the popular program with a shortfall of $310,000.
GRCA officials are looking for a way to cover that shortfall and make the program self-funded over the next three to five years. Moving the program from the nature centres to conservation areas would help achieve that goal.
Nature centres also have maintenance costs that are currently being met by donations from the Grand River Conservation Foundation or through the use of conservation authority nature centre reserves. Maintenance costs for App’s Mill is projected to top the $2-million mark over the next 20 years and $5.5 million for all of the authority’s nature centre over the same time frame.