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A tree castle on the grounds of the Manitou Project in Williamsville.

Town and Village

Williamsville nonprofit wants to buy conserved land

Manitou Project kicks off $250,000 capital campaign to buy 224 acres that have been used as a nature retreat for decades

More information on the capital campaign and the organization’s offerings is available at manitouproject.org.

WILLIAMSVILLE—For decades, The Manitou Project has been offering a chance to reconnect with nature on more than 200 forested, conserved acres in the village of Williamsville.

The organization asks visitors “to be still, to quiet the everyday mind.” But leaders of the nonprofit are about to enter a busy time as they kick off a fundraising campaign to purchase the land they’ve been managing.

Beyond acquiring real estate, the goal is to expand Manitou’s offerings – including completion of a wheelchair-accessible trail and overnight accommodations – as well as to raise the organization’s profile and increase its collaborations with other nonprofits and schools.

“Some people see us as a well-kept secret in town ... we see this as a kind of growth for the whole project and want to reach out to other people to see the land and experience its beauty,” said Fred Taylor, president of Manitou’s council. “We’re just trying to increase our visibility.”

Manitou’s roots stretch back to the 1980s, when Pam and David Mayer bought roughly 250 acres of land in Williamsville. Along with conserving the land, Taylor said the Mayers’ goal was to create a woodland sanctuary for the community to discover, enhance as a refuge, and enjoy for generations.

Conservation was achieved via the Vermont Land Trust. And, in the 1990s, the Manitou Project was formed to manage “sustainable” community use of property. Manitou’s name is interpreted as “it is sacred,” and that’s an indication of the seriousness with which the organization has taken its mission.

Aided by an extensive trail network and features such as a “tree castle” and gatehouse, Manitou’s offerings include programs, workshops and camps. One example is the Earth Friend Discovery Day Camp, offered for children ages 7 to 12 in partnership with the Vermont Wilderness School.

There also are adult nature experiences such as healing walks, and volunteer staff members at Brattleboro Area Hospice have been among those taking advantage of those walks. Ryan Murphy, the hospice’s care coordinator, said the events “often provide people with very needed opportunities for quiet.”

“It’s a time for solace, and many people experience the connectivity for themselves in the natural world,” Murphy said. “And I think more and more people are coming to understand how that can be a nurturing experience.”

Murphy said Manitou and the hospice “share a common legacy of Pam Mayer, who was an integral founder of both organizations. So that creates kind of a natural affinity.”

Murphy added, “I think many of us feel [Manitou] has tremendous potential going forward to expand on its current status.”

That expansion, though, depends on ongoing use of the land. And the property – 224 acres of the original plot purchased by the Mayers – is up for sale.

Taylor said the Mayer Family Trust was formed to own the land for two decades, “with the idea that Manitou would then be in a position to buy it itself.” That’s what the nonprofit is now attempting, with an initial goal set at $40,000 to be put towards a down payment.

The idea is that Manitou, after making that payment, would have up to two years to come up with the remainder of the purchase price, said Mike Mayer, son of Pam and David Mayer. He said the 224 acres “are soon to be put on the open market,” and the asking price likely will be close to the property’s appraised value of $220,000.

The process is weighted toward a Manitou purchase, but no deal is set in stone, said Mayer, a trustee of the Mayer Family Trust and a point person for the Manitou board.

“Manitou is the most likely buyer, but another buyer may come forward,” Mayer said. “If that happens, Manitou will have a first right of refusal, which would give it up to a week to come up with a bona fide matching offer. The possibility of another buyer coming in does give incentive for Manitou to move as quickly as it reasonably can.”

Along with funding the land purchase, the Manitou capital campaign also seeks money for site improvements. That includes finishing a wheelchair trail and an accessible “tree castle” on the site as well as completing overnight retreat accommodations at the gatehouse, which is used for indoor programming and dorm space.

Mayer also envisions new collaborations with other organizations, saying it’s possible Manitou could take on a partner “such as a school or college committed to ‘expeditionary learning’ that wishes to invest in shared ownership and stewardship of the land.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #328 (Wednesday, October 21, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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