Retail veteran gave new life to Chattahoochee Nature Center

30 11 2008

Ann Bergstrom, an Atlanta native, practically grew up in the woods of the Southeast, she says. Her father was in the U.S. Forest Service and taught her to love the outdoors.

That passion for the natural world continued through her adult life, though she kept it separate from her career for decades. Monday through Friday, she worked in retail marketing, including 25 years at Rich’s and Federated department stores. She and her husband spent their weekends canoeing and camping.

Then, in December 1999, she took on what she considers the hardest challenge of her life. She became director of the Chattahoochee Nature Center, which was struggling and in danger of shutting down, she said.

She has been able to stabilize the financial health of the nonprofit and raise nearly $10 million for a new facility that is under construction. The 10,000-square-foot Discovery Center, scheduled to open in June, will focus on education about the Chattahoochee River. It will house interactive exhibits, a high-definition theater and a rooftop garden terrace for community activities.

 

Q: Why did you take this job when you knew the center was struggling?

 

A: It was a call to the heart. I gave it a lot of thought. I came down here and walked the trails. I went in and out of the place a number of times anonymously without anyone knowing who I was. I could see visibly that the center was needy in a lot of ways. I thought about it, prayed about it. … I am the only director who has stayed more than five years in the center’s 32 years of existence. It is a very difficult challenge and has been since the initial launching of the center.

 

Q: Why is it such a difficult challenge?

 

A: It is an environmental nonprofit. Put that at the top of the list. There are almost no environmental nonprofits in the state of Georgia. There is no critical mass for the work we do. There is no official structure in state or local government to work with and support nonprofits that work in the environmental field, or, for that matter, in the science field.

Education is sort of the overlooked part of the environmental continuum. I think the general public thinks environmental education is taught in schools and it is something we should all just sort of understand and know, that the real issues that deserve support in the environmental arena are the crises — saving a piece of land that is going to be lost to development or saving a habitat in which animals are in danger. Those are compelling causes that attract people. Education is not sexy.

A little bit of that is changing now, however, with the awareness that we are going to have to face the issue of global warming and climate change. … At the same time, the pressure of the community on the Chattahoochee Nature Center to deliver environmental education was enormous. The people kept coming, they kept coming, they kept coming. More than 100,000 people a year come to the center.

Read on here.

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