A community resource that once provided a wealth of inexpensive but enriching programs now stands as a "wasted asset."
So said Jim McMahon, Southold Town Director of Public Works, at a work session discussion held Tuesday regarding the Downs Farm Preserve in Cutchogue.
McMahon said the Group for the East End has discussed a full slate of new programs that individuals were willing to host at the Cutchogue site.
Down's Farm Preserve, the site of a former Native American Fort, which stood in the 1600s, is listed on the National Park Register of Historic Places.
Remnants of the fort can be seen at the 51-acre wooded parcel in Cutchogue. The preserve features miles of hiking trails along the tidal wetlands of Downs Creek.
Local vintner Russ McCall, who began planting pinot noir and merlot grapes at McCall's Farm Vineyard next door in 1996, helped preserve the land through development rights deals with Southold Town and the Peconic Land Trust in the early 1990s.
McMahon said in the past, scores of programs brought visitors to the parcel, which, although it is a historic site, has long been devoid of such attractions.
Former crowd-favorite programs included a Cornell Bug Day, complete with a "hissing cockroach," McMahon said, that once brought up to 200 visitors to the property for an event.
School field trips also used to be held at the preserve, he said.
"This is a wasted asset," McMahon said. "We haven't done these programs in years. I'd like to talk about what we can do to make this a more attractive place for the community to do events there."
The preserve, he added, already has bathrooms, heat, and trails. "And with a little tweaking, it could have a lot more."
In the past, McMahon said, "simple programs," attracted residents. One program involved just erecting a bird feeder. Bird watchers, he said, would gather to watch 23 varieties of birds that appeared. "Birdseed isn't very expensive," he said.
Other ideas include a butterfly garden and a beehive, he said. "Someone could come and do a program on how important bees are. It's simple. It doesn't cost anything."
Another idea includes installing a fiberglass liner on an old foundation to create a freshwater pond; the area is already fenced and could be used to foster turtles, salamanders, fish and dragon flies in a learning center environment.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he'd asked McMahon to generate a list of possible program ideas together for the future.
The programs, McMahon said, would be free.
Down the line, a low cost of $5 might be charged, but could generate revenue and would bring out people looking for weekend activities.
"It's surprising how little people know about flora and fauna," McMahon said.
Councilman Chris Talbot said the idea was a great one; he and his children have walked around the preserve and found "things hidden" at the site.
"I took my kids there all the time," Councilwoman Jill Doherty agrred. "We saw a fox family there once."
The board said the start-up budget for the project could come out of the town's park and playground fund.
And bringing in the Group for the East End could invite high-profile personalities to the North Fork, including celebrities such as Christie Brinkley, who attends South Fork fundraisers, McMahon said.
"It will be good to have them onboard," he said.
"We are very excited about these new educational programs," Missy Weiss, environmental educator for the Group for the East End, said. "Group for the East End is excited to partner with Town of Southold in offering a variety of educational and exciting environmental programs at Downs Farm Preserve."
Weiss said the organization recently hosted a "very successful" birdhouse building workshop at the preserve and look forward to the 15 new programs they have planned throughout the spring.
Programs topics include nature walks, storytime, birding events, an invasive species walk, owl pellet dissection and prowl, and kitchen chemistry fun for children.
For more information on these events at the Downs Farm Preserve, please click here.