Nature center turns to public in Coogan Farm fundraising campaign

Mystic - In June 2012, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center and the Trust for Public Land approached the Stonington Board of Finance about bonding $1.5 million to help purchase 34 acres of Coogan Farm off Route 27 so it could be preserved as open space.

The finance board rejected the request because it did not want to add to the town's debt, and some members wanted to see the site developed.

The nature center then faced the daunting task, in a shaky economy, of raising the $3.5 million needed to buy the land, renovate the home and barn and upgrade trails.

It faced the task of doing so before its option to buy the land expired. Earlier this year, the Clara Morgan Coogan Trust, which owns the property, extended the deadline to give the center more time to raise the money.

But now, 14 months later, the nature center has raised $3.1 million of the $3.5 million it needs and embarked this week on the public phase of its fundraising campaign to obtain the rest of the money.

Letters and brochures were mailed to 21,000 area households shortly after 400 area businesses were asked for their help. The closing on the $2.8 million property is slated for next month.

"There were people who said it could not be done," said nature center Executive Director Maggie Jones on Thursday. "It's been a challenge, but we're doing it and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Until now, the nature center raised money from donors through a quiet phase of the campaign. The effort got a big boost earlier this year when the state approved a $500,000 grant for the purchase.

Jones said the public phase of the campaign is now an opportunity for everyone to participate in the effort.

She said the center will continue to raise money through the rest of the year and in 2014 hopes to renovate the barn into a visitors' center, upgrade trails and add signage. That all depends, though, on if the center can raise the remaining $400,000.

Jones said the message the nature center has been sending to the public is that preserving the farm further protects the coastal character of Mystic, which is what draws both residents and tourists.

"So this is a benefit to area businesses as well," she said.

The Coogan family has already donated an adjacent 11-acre parcel to the nature center, which along with the one being purchased creates a 300-acre greenbelt with trails that links the nature center with the attractions along Coogan Boulevard, Mystic Seaport and surrounding neighborhoods.

The center's visions statement for the project states that it will promote conservation, outdoor education, sustainable tourism, improved health and community spirit.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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