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Chattahoochee Nature Center: New CEO sees path to link more people with nature

By David Pendered

The waiting list of 800 children for summer camp at the Chattahoochee Nature Center is a good problem to have, by any typical management metric. Natasha Rice doesn’t see it that way.

Chattachoochee Nature Center provides young campers at Camp Kingfisher opportunities to learn about the great outdoors, including this introduction to an opossum presented by Samantha Mason. Credit: David Pendered

To Rice, that waiting list represents an unfulfilled opportunity for the nature center to fulfill its mission of educating about the environment. There are children new to the center waiting to be served, in addition to those who will be the third generation of their family to attend summer camp. It doesn’t take an MBA, which Rice has, to figure out the center’s on the short side of the supply-and-demand equation.

“I’m getting ahead of myself to say, but we should be able to serve more kids, and provide more opportunities to serve those on the wait list,” Rice said.

Thus begins Rice’s term as president and CEO of the non-profit Chattahoochee Nature Center.

Rice started work June 7, taking over from Chris Nelson, whose imprint on the region’s parks and greenspace over the past three decades is hard to overestimate. Nelson served seven years at the nature center, which opened along the banks of the river in 1976 in an area of North Fulton County that was rural at the time.

Rice arrives from the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta. Duties during five years included oversight of administrative functions and of more than 20 locations, including a 160-acre summer camp near Athens.

At the Chattahoochee Nature Center, Rice assumes management of a facility that is a successful enterprise, according to its latest federal tax return, for the calendar year of 2019. A fundraising campaign has secured funds necessary to complete the last of the Phase 1 projects, which is to open around Thanksgiving – an ADA-accessible bridge to connect the main campus with a refurbished boardwalk along the river. The next step in the capital campaign is to start at a time to be determined.

Natasha Rice’s first day as the Chattahoochee Nature Center’s president and CEO was June 7. Credit: David Pendered

Three days into the job, Rice paused last week to talk about the position, of which she said: “A dream has come true for me.” Rice continued:

  • “I enjoyed five years of working with kids and being connected with their lives. We had 160 acres and served a lot of kids in the metro area. I look forward to continuing to work with youth, and expanding and serving for a lifetime the people we connect with nature.”

Rice said it would be premature for her to outline a plan of action. There’s the construction project to finish by Thanksgiving, the bridge over Willeo Road. And there’s the next capital campaign to prepare. Still, her mind is working:

  • “I’m trying to quietly absorb everything. I see such potential. I see so many things that can happen. Some of the things in brick and mortar are in Phase 2, to increase our capacity. We could update some facilities to improve the experience, and to allow for more participation.
  • “We haven’t gotten to some areas of the center, and we have the ability to access it in the future and enhance the experience, and open it to more people. We have 127 acres. That’s a fairly large footprint. There are places we could expand hiking and accessibility, for more serious hiking interests and more reasons to come to the center.”

The Chattahoochee Nature Center’s next project is a bridge over Willeo Road to improve the experience of crossing from the main campus to the riverbank. Credit: David Pendered

Those last words are magic in the world of non-profit facilities such as the nature center – “more reasons to come to the center.” Program service revenue is central to the center’s ability to carry forward.

Programs including the summer camp brought in 45% of the center’s revenue, according to a federal tax return filed Aug. 13, 2020 and made available by guidestar.com. Contributions account for 51% of the $3.9 million in reported revenues.

Despite the era of coronavirus distancing requirements, the center was able to continue providing programs that brought in revenue in 2020, Nelson said.

“We made it through Covid,” Nelson said. “We didn’t have to furlough fulltime staff. We have no long-term debt. We’re open for business today. It’s a great testament to the staff who came in to feed the animals and take care of our collection of plants.”

Rice indicated she has reviewed and appreciates the center’s financial position.

“We’ve been set up for an unbelievable amount of success,” she said

Visitors of all abilities will be able to enjoy the new boardwalk the Chattahoochee Nature Center intends to install. Credit: CNC

Rice’s perspective is shaped by a career in management after earning her MBA from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, in operations management and supervision. Her resume includes managing a multimillion dollar commercial loan portfolio for non-profits and other clients, for BB&T; COO of human resources for a federal contracting business; and, immediately before the Boys & Girls Club, director of business process/sales operations at PulteGroup.

Nelson led the CNC for seven years and leaves with fundraising complete for the $6 million first phase. Before arriving at the nature center, Nelson served 14 years as executive VP/ COO of the Piedmont Park Conservancy and guided the implementation of its $40 million master plan. Nelson volunteers on the board of South Fork Conservancy, where his role as construction chair has him working with the development projects including the installation of a $2 million ADA-accessible pedestrian bridge over the waterway.

Nelson leaves at a time the nature center has assets of $9.3 million and debt at a total of $438,025. More than half the debt represented deferred revenue. The amount of reported secured and unsecured debt, and all other liabilities amounted to: Zero.

As Nelson described the center that he’s departing:

Chris Nelson led the Chattahoochee Nature Center for seven years and left it debt free. Credit: CNC

  • “Things I’m proud of in my period of time? Improving the work environment for workers. The benefits problem is resolved. We have great partnerships with Trees Atlanta, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, South Fork Conservancy. We have great relations with Fulton County and Roswell. We have one of the best summer camps in the area and one of the best nature centers in the U.S. – 140,000 visitors, counting children and paid visitors.”

Looking ahead to the days when he has finished helping with the transition to Rice’s administration and exits the management office, Nelson said:

  • “I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish over the period of time I was here. One of the reasons I chose to work here is this wonderful [capital] project. It’s bittersweet that I won’t be here to complete it. I will continue to serve the Chattahoochee Nature Center as a member and a supporter.”
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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