The new education center being built at Viles Arboretum on June 18 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — For the last year, Ryan Martin has been watching all the people who have come to the Viles Arboretum during the pandemic for a chance to spend some time outside as their other activities were canceled.

Now that public health restrictions are being lifted and people are resuming their normal activities, the arboretum’s executive director is looking for ways to continue drawing people back to the property again and again.

Martin is betting on the arboretum’s latest addition, the Education Center, will be one of the vehicles that will make that happen.

“We’ve had education programs here for a while,” Martin said. “But we’ve never really had an indoor space that was designed for teaching.”

Now in the final stages of construction, the Education Center will be a three-season structure where staff can hold classes and workshops. The arboretum also will its host its summer camp for children there in August, with the support of the Children’s Discovery Museum of Central Maine.

“We have other spaces here, but none of them are the kind of space you could bring 30 kids into and feel comfortable making wreaths or potting plants or doing anything like that,” Martin said. “That’s a big thing I want to do — have a hands-on learning opportunity for kids.”


Viles Arboretum Executive Director Ryan Martin at the organization’s new education center June 18 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Before coming to the arboretum, Martin had been a classroom teacher for seven years in Islesboro, teaching botany and horticulture. After getting involved in summer camps and doing some consulting, he decided he wanted to try something other than traditional education, and came to the arboretum.

Across central Maine, Martin said the opportunities for outdoor education are limited, and that’s a void that the Young Stewards Summer Program can fill. This year, it’s slated to take place Aug. 2 through 6. Children will have the chance to become scientists for the week, taking advantage of the arboretum’s resources, as well as playing games and exploring the woods.

They’ll be able to take advantage of the Education Center, which is expected to open July 23.

The center as it’s envisioned now is the result of a year’s worth of effort that started almost immediately after Martin was hired at the arboretum. Fundraising  had been underway for several years to pay for a new building, but it was initially intended for storage.

A year ago, just as the project was set to be begin, Martin shifted the plan from a storage space to the kind of place where people could gather, and as a mechanism to elevate the arboretum’s programs.

To date, $88,000 has been raised to pay for the building from small contributions and corporate gifts from area businesses. Because of the increased costs of building materials, the budget expanded, Martin said, and some funds will be withdrawn from the organization’s endowment.


The Food and Forest Collection behind the Education Center at Viles Arboretum on June 18 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

It’s also an asset that can be rented out for community events, and that’s a revenue stream that will help support the organization in the long run.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about how the arboretum is financed and how we run it,” Martin said. “People just assume someone’s going to pay for it, but there is no mechanism to pay for it.”

The Viles Arboretum is a private, nonprofit corporation that relies on membership fees for a large share of its operating budget. It raises money through foundation support, and by writing grants, fundraising, leasing out office space in the visitor’s center and making the new Discovery Room that was added in January available to rent for families. It also sells maps to the grounds.

Access to the arboretum’s 224 acres of plantings and sculpture garden is free and will continue to be, and it’s a draw for people from both near and far.

Earlier this month, Rosemary Jones and Angela Rosenkrans stopped by the arboretum on their annual mother-daughter trip that brought them to Maine this year. Their itinerary was planned to take them from York to Millinocket and from the coast to Bethel.  They saw the arboretum in the guide book Rosenkrans found and built their travel plans from that.

They made the loop around the perimeter of the property and stopped for a moment to talk with Martin, who was interested to know how they’d learned about the arboretum.


Visitors Rosemary Jones, left, and Angela Rosenkrans are framed in and arched window of the Education Center on June 18 at Viles Arboretum in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Once they’d completed their walk, Rosenkrans said they loved it.

“It was really beautiful,” she said. “We loved the signage, because Mom always has a million questions and (the signs) answered a lot of our questions.”

As people return to their normal lives, Martin said he wants the arboretum to continue to provide service to the community for both recreation and research, using the plantings and collections at the facility.

“We’ve been a good place to go for a walk, and we’re still that place,” he said. “You can now come here during the summer and take a tour with a wildlife biologist. You spend $10 and spend an hour and a half. You get to get outside and learn something new. That didn’t exist before.

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