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Green Space Takes, and Makes, the Stage at Irvine Nature Center

Irvine Nature Center - Arianne Teeple
Irvine Nature Center - Arianne Teeple
When James Yolles, a communications professional in New York City, and his wife, Laura -- both Baltimore natives -- were searching for a wedding venue, they had a few requirements in mind.

"Laura and I wanted a Baltimore-area venue that was welcoming and fun. Not too traditional, but with simple elegance," says Yolles, who married his bride at Irvine Nature Center this June. "Irvine Nature Center fit that bill perfectly."

Tucked away off of Garrison Forest Road, Irvine Nature Center occupies 116 acres of the Caves Valley region of Owings Mills. With a staff dedicated to inspiring exploration, respect, and protection of nature, Irvine Nature Center hosts family and school programs, nature camps, weddings, and other special events. A short drive from the Baltimore Beltway, Irvine Nature Center is a quick trip from anywhere in the Baltimore area.

Location played a factor in local bride, Lianne Hepler's, and her husband, Timm McShane's, decision to chose Irvine as their wedding venue. They loved its balance of rustic beauty and modern facilities and Irvine's close proximity to hotels and restaurants. Hepler, a graphic designer from Columbia, also appreciated Irvine's focus on creating green, sustainable weddings.

"Irvine's focus on green vendors helped us narrow our selections to choices we could feel good about. They offered a nice selection of green caterers, florists, and rentals for different styles," Hepler notes. "We were happy to have a fun and memorable wedding that helped support Irvine's mission."

Local Color Flowers is one of the green vendors that has worked closely with Irvine Nature Center for many events. Owner Ellen Frost praises the naturally beautiful but state-of-the-art venue.

"Many natural venues have aging -- or no -- facilities. Irvine's modern, green facility boasts a green roof, geothermal heating system, waterless urinals, low-flow fixtures, and rain barrels," Frost enthuses.

Frost also emphasizes how professional and easy to work with Irvine's staff is, which, to her, cannot be underestimated. Irvine Nature Center's mission closely reflects that of her own business.

"Local Color Flowers is committed to supporting the local economy and promoting neighboring farms. We provide our clients an environmentally and socially conscious alternative when purchasing flowers. Irvine is committed to inspiring appreciation and respect for the natural world. They are providing a green alternative to a traditional special events venue."

Aside from renting the event space, Irvine's income stream comes solely from donations and memberships. In the currently lagging economy, cultural memberships are often the first to go when families trim their budgets.

"Irvine faces a lot of the same challenges as other nonprofits in this rough economy," says Irvine's Director of Marketing and Communications, Beth Lacey Gill. "While we see more than 50,000 visitors each year, membership rates have suffered. Since membership pays for programs, maintenance of grounds, and animal care, it's a very important part of our growth."

Irvine has taken several steps to increase membership, including offering discounted memberships on group buying sites. A recent deal on Plum District, a social buying site targeted at mothers, offered  discounted family memberships good through the end of 2011. Irvine Nature Center will soon feature a similar deal on Certifikid, another family focused site.

"Membership is really our lifeblood," Gill adds.

Irvine Nature Center has also ramped up its presence on social media sites in an effort to promote membership. Irvine's Facebook page has over 1,300 fans and its Twitter account, @IrvineNature, has over 1,000 followers. Earlier this year, Irvine Nature Center held a contest asking its Facebook fans to help name one of its programs. The selected name was "Tales and Tails," and that program sees over 40 guests per week.

"Social media is a great forum for our members to give us feedback," Gill notes.

While Irvine Nature Center grows virtually, it will also grow physically in the coming years. Irvine's three-year strategic plan includes a great amount of expansion. The recently completed Outdoor Classroom is a members-only benefit. By the end of this summer, camp sites will dot the Irvine Nature Center property.

"We're always experimenting with new programs, like the free Concert on the Green on August 19. We add new children and adult classes as often as possible," Gill says. "We expect to be continually noted as an environmental education organization. And as long as members support us, Irvine Nature Center will stay free."

Brett Stevens hosted a birthday party for his daughter at Irvine. Stevens, a Reisterstown resident, appreciates Irvine's dedication to introducing animals to children and exploring nature.

"Irvine Nature Center is definitely a hidden gem worth exposing," Stevens says.

James Yolles and his wife agree, and couldn't be happier with their decision to wed at Irvine Nature Center.

"Irvine's personality helped make our event turn out exactly as we wanted. Our guests are still telling us how different our wedding felt -- welcoming and friendly, yet classy and elegant -- and perfect for summer in Maryland. That's Irvine."

Renee Libby Beck is a freelance writer and public relations coordinator for Medifast, Inc. Renee serves as the Baltimore Food Examiner for Examiner.com and writes for other local blogs and publications. She is terrified of snakes.

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Photos by Bmore Media Managing Photographer Arianne Teeple
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