After seven years at the helm of Blandford Nature Center, President and CEO Jason Meyer announced earlier this month that he will be stepping away from his post at the end of the year. Meyer has left his mark on the organization in a number of ways. Most notably, he served in the leadership role in 2017 when the Grand Rapids nonprofit purchased the adjacent 121-acre Highlands Golf Course for $3.5 million as part of a transformational expansion. As Blandford works with Grand Rapids-based HR Collaborative LLC to find a new leader, MiBiz spoke with Meyer about his time with the popular West Michigan nonprofit.
What prompted you to step away from Blandford Nature Center after seven years running the organization?
I get asked that about every three minutes [laughs]. It boils down to the fact that a good leader knows when it’s time to step out, right? We’ve accomplished so much here over the past seven years — I’m incredibly proud of all that. But I’m at a point where I see the next person might have a little bit more energy than me, and Blandford is ready for the next chapter. I’m happy to stick around and support, but it’s also time for me to step down from this role.
On a more personal level, I had COVID back in November and was in the hospital for several days. That’s a lot of time to reflect on life’s priorities. I’m happy to have gotten through all of that, and now I’ll be pursuing some of my own personal dreams as well, so I’m stoked about that.
Are you able to share details about your upcoming ventures?
I think I’m going to keep that kind of quiet until I’m ready to really launch, but it’s going to be awesome. In the meantime, though — and this is an important piece — while I’m stepping down as president and CEO, I will be retained as an outside consultant to help finish the capital campaign for the Highlands.
What is the status of the Highlands project and why is Blandford raising the funds?
The Highlands was a two-phase process. The first phase was to purchase the land and start some of the habitat restoration and develop a master plan for the property. Now we’re in the second phase, which is taking that master plan and implementing it. What we’re raising money for are things like well over a mile of barrier-free trails so anyone in our community can access nature. We’re working on building a pavilion and learning center. And then continued habitat restoration is really the other big bucket. All told, it’s about a $10 million campaign. We’ve raised about $4 million toward it already.
Is it safe to say that helping strike the deal to purchase the Highlands was your most noteworthy highlight at Blandford?
That was definitely the highlight of my time here. I feel so incredibly blessed that they’re willing to keep me around to see that to completion. But some other things I’m really proud of is we built a brand new visitor center out here during my tenure. Not only are we doubling the size of our land base but we’re building some pretty incredible facilities for the community, as well. Second most importantly, we’re on solid financial footing now. When I started, it was pretty tenuous and we were not sure how things were going to go. Today, we have a decent endowment that we rely on for ongoing funding and the community has really stepped up and gotten behind us. We’re seeing almost triple the number of visitors now from when I first started.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the organization? Did it give Blandford a little bit of a bump as people looked for outdoor activities to enjoy?
It was more than a little bit — we saw a huge bump. When the shutdowns first started happening, we ran into a crunch. Our summer camps were canceled, all the school field trips were canceled. … We were looking at a huge revenue loss for the year. We made the really hard decision to lay off half of our staff. We brought them back with some Paycheck Protection Program loans on a sort of limited basis, but they got laid off again. We’re still growing our staff out of that. We cut our staff and closed our facilities, and at the same time, three times as many people were coming out and using our trails because that’s where you can go to get out of the house.
The result of that is the community stepped up pretty big. We saw a huge influx in donations coming in. Our membership growth has been pretty phenomenal.
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