Blank Slate: Nature Center Doubles Space with Highlands of Blandford

A new tract of land is becoming part of Blandford Nature Center.

The Highlands Golf Course, opened in 1907, was a signature part of Grand Rapids for over 115 years, but as the golf industry began to experience a decline, the owner decided to sell the property to its uniquely positioned next door neighbor in 2016.

Adjacent to the golf course is Blandford Nature Center, a 143-acre property with hiking trails, rescued animals and environmental education programs. With the acquisition of the Highlands land, the center doubled its property size.

The land actually lives up to its moniker, which is why Blandford decided to keep the property’s recognizable name, calling it The Highlands of Blandford. It is now in the process of being restored to its original state for public use.

“It was farmland before it was a golf course 120 years ago,” said Jason Meyer, CEO of Blandford Nature Center. “Anytime you have a golf course it’s going to take lots of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides.”

An average 18-hole course requires six tons of fertilizer a year, according to Joe Engel, executive director of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. He said it can cause some damage to the native “seedbank,” meaning, the original plants and grasses that grew in that area.

“It will clear,” Engel said. “It hasn’t had any fertilizer on it now for a few years. It’s amazing what Mother Nature does to clear it out.”

The golf course grass is still there, it’s just long and unmowed.

“That’s another exciting piece of this, that we have a blank slate to rebuild nature,” Meyer said. “All that herbicide probably did kill all the native seeds that were under there, or most of them anyway.”

Engel said it is possible some of the native plants may come back, but they just have to wait and see what the soil does on its own.

After the golf course was sold to Third Coast Development, it was then sold to Blandford and the Land Conservancy for about $3.5 million, according to a Grand Rapids Business Journal article. Now, there is a campaign, which kicked off in June, to raise $5.3 million to pay for this land and the work that needs to be done to restore it.

New and existing features of this land include wetlands, daylighting, native prairie grass, rustic and paved trails (ADA-accessible), a native playscape for kids, small pavilions, outdoor classrooms, and much more. An existing building from the properties time as a country club remains and conversations are ongoing as to whether to repurpose it or tear it down.

The Land Conservancy technically owns one-third of the property.

“We aren’t quite clear on what that’s going to look like,” Engel said. “The one thing that is clear is that this entire 121-acres will be managed as one ecological unit. Even though we may own a part of it, wherever that ends up being, you aren’t going to see fences.”

The property is open now, and Meyer said people are already utilizing the trails and taking pictures in the grasses.

Meyer said this land acquisition follows the mission of Blandford’s founder, Mary Jane Dockery, who opened the center in 1968 as an extension of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

“(The center) started with a 10-acre donation and then grew to 143-acres under her watch,” Meyer said. “Her vision was always about ‘getting kids boots back on the ground.’ Even back in 1968, it was about getting kids outdoors and getting them to interact with nature.”

In 2007, Blandford left GRPM and “struck out” on its own as a nonprofit.

“While the nature center started with a focus on kids, now it’s really about everyone in the community,” Meyer said. “And being inclusive and welcoming to everyone, no matter where you’re from in town, no matter what your socioeconomic background is. Nature is for everyone.”

Highlands at Blandford is truly more accessible; its entrance sits right on the bus route off of Leonard Street and admission is free to that portion of the property.

“Literally, we’re breaking down the barriers of getting people out into nature through this project,” Meyer said.

Visit the new property at 2715 Leonard Street NW. If you’d like to support this project visit the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

*Photos courtesy of Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

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