AUGUSTA — Viles Arboretum executive director Mark DesMeules unveiled an interactive map this week that he hopes will help put his organization, well, on the map.
The 224-acre arboretum, located across from the former Augusta Mental Health Institute grounds, has been around since 1983 and played host to thousands of visitors. But it does suffer from an identity crisis and DesMeules was hired a year-and-half ago to change that perception.
“We want to get on the radar screen so it’s not just an Augusta Arboretum,” DesMeules said. “We don’t have a strong membership right now, but it’s growing.”
DesMeules was executive director at the Damariscotta River Association for 10 years and turned that organization around, increasing membership from 200 to 600. He’s been asked to do the same for the arboretum, which is a non-profit organization that many once thought was run by the State of Maine. That prompted a name change three years ago from the Pine Tree State Arboretum to Viles Arboretum in honor of Augusta resident Elsie Viles who is one the organization’s founders. The land is owned by the state which has issued a 99-year lease for it to the arboretum.
DesMeules says his mission is “to breathe some new life into the organization and get the organization on a sustainable footing. You’ve got to be in the limelight on a regular basis with interesting projects and programs and events.”
Many of the changes are noticeable and already in place. There’s a weekly indoor farmer’s market, the organization has established community gardens on the land, held a 5K Run for the Trees and a Halloween event that included live horses and a headless horseman that drew 200 visitors.
DesMeules said these outreach events have been established “to bring people here and discover what we’re all about.”
What the arboretum is all about is trees, 1,500 of them from all over the world, grouped into 20 locations along six miles of trails. The map, which is available at the main building details all these areas. And at each one there will be, within a couple of weeks, a 4×6 foot full-color, interpretive sign that explains each collection.
This will enhance the experience for the many classes of schoolchildren who come to the arboretum in the fall, spring and summer. Last year, more than 2,500 came.
“We do a lot of neat things with the kids,” DesMeules said. “This is superficial stuff. The kids were trapping animals, they were catching fish in the pond. They’re doing geo-cashing. There’s a whole host of stuff.”
DesMeules said the trees and shrubs are not only to look at and learn about but also serve as a basis for home owners or urban planters who would like to know how they react at different stages of development.
One the bigger projects under way at the arboretum is the sculpture and nature project. Within the next few weeks, 15 massive stone sculptures will be set into place throughout the arboretum.
“They’re all basically nature-themed sculptures,” DesMeules said. “These all are people who are very well known in the field. The goal is to make the arboretum the only place in Maine where the public can come and view (outdoor) art for free.”
The winter months are also a busy time at the arboretum. In addition to the farmer’s market, there’s a jam session each Sunday at the main building which includes a variety of unusual instruments. Once snow falls, there’s cross country and snowshoeing available and equipment rental. This winter the arboretum is offering sled dog rides as well.
One of the more popular winter events is the table tour on Super Bowl Sunday in which participants cross country ski to four different sets of tables that are loaded with hot gourmet food donated by local restaurants. Last year the event drew 500, who DesMeules pointed out, all got back home in time for the Super Bowl.
Most of the events at the arboretum are free which is why the goal to make it sustainable within the next three years is so important. There are currently 250 members — memberships begin at $30 — and DesMeules would like to see that number double along with the donor list.
The organization also raises money from its gift shop, federal grants and the rental of office space to other non-profits. The groomed trails are open to anyone as well as their pets and consist of mostly grass and one of the longest boardwalks in the state. There are greater changes in the works, too, including an impressive arched entrance and enhancements to the buildings on site.
The arboretum is open dawn to dusk seven days a week and there is no admission charge. For more information on activities and events at Viles Arboretum, check its website www.vilesarboretum.org.
Gary Hawkins — 621-5638