Saving Bragg Nature Center: Another Obama success story

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BALTIMORE-Crews of cement finishers, carpenters, painters, and tile setters have swarmed into the Bragg Nature Center this past summer, renovating a once forgotten, weed infested, crumbling, 37-acre facility owned by the Baltimore City Public Schools.

The construction crews were hired thanks to a $3 million grant under President Obama's economic stimulus package - one of hundreds of projects across the nation that are creating millions of jobs while also building or preserving public facilities that will serve people for decades to come.

Yesterday, the Association of General Contractors released a survey showing that 56 out of 337 metro areas added construction jobs between August 2009 and August 2010, thanks in large part to the Obama stimulus.

"With construction employment on the mend, AGC chief economist Ken Simonson said. "It appears that the worst is finally over. The fact remains, however, this industry has a long way to go before we see construction employment back to pre-recession levels." Without mentioning Republican obstructionism, he added, "Congress is now a year late in passing major highway and transit investment legislation as well as other key infrastructure bills."

 "Federal inaction combined with ongoing weak, private, state, and local demand will undermine chances of a broader construction industry recovery," the AGC economist warned.

The Bragg Nature Center is a clear example of an Obama "success story" ignored by the corporate media. Bragg was rediscovered about two years ago when Tony Geraci became the director of BCPS Food Service. Geraci who advocates changing the diet fed to schoolchildren by profit-driven private food vendors, got wind of the existence of Bragg and made a visit. Instantly he realized that the acres at Bragg could be turned into vegetable gardens to provide fresh organic vegetables to Baltimore schoolchildren.

Soon a staff of young farmers, reinforced by hundreds of student and community volunteers, planted vegetable gardens that, over the past two summers, provided a cornucopia of  fresh vegetables. Organic eggs are now laid by a flock of chickens that are not cage-bound like those on factory farms. There is also a small herd of goats.

And then this summer, thanks to the stimulus package, came the construction crews.

For years, history wasn't so kind to Bragg, once a home for wayward youth run by the Episcopal Church. When the church closed the facility, they donated the buildings and grounds to BCPS with the promise that it would be preserved in perpetuity for the use of Baltimore schoolchildren.

The Bragg Nature Center is outside the beltway and adjacent to Patapsco State Park which helps explain the deer, fox, raccoons, and other wildlife that abound. There is an assembly of handsome stone buildings including the main classroom, the barn once used to stable horses, the old gymnasium where plants were grown and half a dozen big, greenhouses.

My personal connection with Bragg began twenty years ago when my wife Joyce became the elementary science specialist for BCPS. A naturalist taught classes at Bragg and hundreds of children were bussed here to walk through the woods, the meadows, and past the frog pond and down along the brook that runs through the property.

About ten years ago, amid the deepening financial crisis in the school system, the naturalist was transferred out, classes at Bragg were terminated and the facility began a long steady decline.

The only continuing signs of life was the "Plant Side" where beautiful plants like poinsettias were grown and displayed at schools throughout the city during the Christmas season. The only other sign was the caretaker, my son Nick, who lived with his wife and children in the lovely stone cottage.

He waged a heroic, rear-guard action to preserve and protect the center, driving off vandals and others who tried to misuse the property.

Ice storms tore gutters from the buildings. The paint peeled. The steam furnace that heated all the buildings broke down one cold winter day and the basement flooded. Ever resourceful, Nick took a garden hose down into the basement, snaked the hose out and down the hill and siphoned the water from the basement.

Now he and his family are moving out, looking back wistfully on the decade this was home but also celebrating the rebirth of this precious facility for teaching thousands of schoolchildren about the natural world and healthy food.

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