Nurturing the Parks of Richland County
By Maura TeynorOctober 29, 2020
Did you know that the nonprofit organization, Friends of the Gorman Nature Center, provides financial support to more than just the Gorman Nature Center? It also includes partial funding for the Richland B&O Bike Trail and the newly acquired Fleming Falls Preserve. The three assets are the primary holdings of the Richland County Park District.
Many people, including Ray and Rani Piar, are passionate about the Richland County Park District. To make sure it thrives, the couple set up a donor-designated fund at the Foundation called the Friends of the Gorman Nature Center Fund. Avid cyclists, the B&O Bike Trail is especially close to their hearts. However, the fund will provide grants to improve and nurture all of the Park District’s assets.
Ray serves on the Board of the Friends of the Gorman Nature Center which is considering a name change to reflect the growing assets of the park district to Friends of the Richland County Parks.
History of the Richland County Park District: (taken from the Richland County Park District website)
The park district began in 1965 by an act of Probate Judge Charles Freehafer. Bob Schraedly served as the district’s first director. The district acquired its first park property in 1975 when, as the story is told, Schraedly convinced Jim Gorman and his sister, Jean Bates, to donate 20 acres of land on Lexington Avenue. Over the next four years they donated about 64 more acres to bring the total to about 84 acres. In the intervening years, three more parcels were purchased with grant money to bring the total to almost 150 acres.
A committee was formed to decide how to best use the new parkland. They decided Richland County needed a “nature center” to provide learning opportunities about the natural world.
Steve McKee was hired as the district’s second director in 1978. McKee’s work, along with help from assistant director, Merrill Tawse, included the installation of a trail system, development of various prairie, wetland, and forest habitats; a nature education program; construction of a visitor center and the establishment of a nonprofit, Friends of the Gorman Nature Center.
Over $500,000 was raised to build a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient visitor center. Architect Marion Zaugg designed the innovative building, which opened in 2001. At its grand opening, Friends of the Gorman Nature Center gifted the building to Richland County.
In 1986 the park district received word that CSX Railroad was going to abandon its rail line in Richland County and that there was new federal legislation enabling the creation of recreational trails on such abandoned rail lines. The Richland County Park District successfully petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for the opportunity to pursue 18.4 miles of rail corridor that would connect Butler, Bellville, Lexington, and Mansfield. With the help of the Richland Regional Planning Commission, they secured a rare 100% federal grant that paid for the acquisition, engineering, and construction of the trail. The next nine years saw public hearings and debate, several legal delays, help from then assistant-prosecutor James DeWeese, an accidental bridge demolition by CSX Railroad, a long engineering design process, and finally trail construction. The Richland B&O Bike Trail opened in 1995 and has been very popular ever since.
The most recent addition to the Park District is the Fleming Falls Preserve. It formerly was known as Camp Mowana off U.S Route 42. In 2019, the 183-acre property was preserved in perpetuity for conservation, recreation, and public enjoyment through cooperative efforts of the Richland County Park District, the Trust for Public Land, and the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Ohio.
The preserve was purchased for over $2 million through funding from the Clean Ohio Conservation Fund and the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Ohio.
Anyone can donate to the Friends of the Gorman Nature Center Fund at richlandcountyfoundation.org; click the donate to a fund button, then select the fund in the dropdown box. Or you can write a check to the Foundation and note fund on the memo line.