For 23 years, the Howard County Conservancy has been a staple in the county's western landscape, a sprawling, 232-acre farm in Woodstock that, on any given day, is teeming with schoolchildren or outdoor enthusiasts.
Yet the eastern portion of Howard — namely the towns of Elkridge and Jessup — have sometimes seemed like a distant world for conservancy officials to attract.
That might be about to change, though, as the nonprofit conservancy will have an opportunity to extend its reach to the east.
The organization was recently chosen by Howard County Recreation and Parks to provide environmental education programs at the department's latest acquisition, Belmont Manor and Historic Park in Elkridge.
Under the agreement announced in May, the conservancy will conduct programs similar to those now offered at its Woodstock location. Operations will be housed at the park's Carriage House, one of several buildings on the 63-acre farm. Conservancy officials say programs will use both Belmont Park grounds and the surrounding 16,000-acre Patapsco Valley State Park.
Conservancy officials are currently developing education programs for next school year. Formal programs would likely start next spring, but officials said they'll be ready to begin monthly free guided hikes, as they do at the Woodstock location, in the fall.
"We're going to be offering similar programs that we [currently] offer, which are school programs, guided hikes throughout the year, festivals and different environmental education activities," said Meg Boyd, conservancy executive director. She said the organization signed 10 one-year, renewable agreements with the Recreation and Parks Department to run Belmont Manor programs.
"What is really unique about this site is that it is on the other side of the county, so we really see that we're going to be able to reach a whole new demographic, a whole new population," Boyd said.
She said that now only a tiny fraction of conservancy summer camp participants, volunteers and donors come from Elkridge. Most of the conservancy's current participant base comes from Ellicott City and Columbia, she said.
"This was a big part of our decision to move forward at Belmont. We think [the Woodstock site] is just a little bit too far of a drive for people to make on a regular basis," Boyd said. She said in addition to drawing visitors from Elkridge to Jessup, conservancy officials anticipate Belmont Manor will give it a reach extending into parts of Baltimore County.
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As a nonprofit, the conservancy will fund its operations at Belmont with donations, grants and program income, Boyd said. She said for the first year, $100,000 will be needed for the launch.
Howard County purchased Belmont Park, a National Historic Register property, from Howard Community College last June. The 63-acre facility has a manor house, a carriage house, a cottage, a barn and a pool. It was originally built in 1738. The college had purchased it in 2004 for $5.2 million — a deal that included $2.6 million in county funds, officials said.
As part of last year's purchase agreement, the county acquired the property from the college for $89,000, officials said.
Mary Ellen Baker, the current general manager at Belmont Manor, said the property was last up and running in 2010. The college closed it in December of that year. The county is doing upgrades, including repainting, kitchen renovation, and siding and carpet replacement, she said.
"We simply need to refurbish everything that hasn't been in use," said Baker, who noted that the acquisition of Belmont Manor gives the county Recreation and Parks Department 21 historic properties.