NOVA Parks’ Winkler plans include adding summer camps, more parking spaces

NOVA Parks’ Winkler plans include adding summer camps, more parking spaces
NOVA Parks Board Chair Cate Magennis Wyatt, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson and ACPS Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt sign the Deed of Park Creation.

By Olivia Anderson |

The Winkler Botanical Preserve and Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority recently announced an ownership transfer of the nearly 45-acre preserve to the park agency, which was cemented in a deed signing ceremony that took place on Sept. 15.

The Winkler Organization gifted $1 million for capital improvements and more than $3 million as an operating endowment in support of the preserve’s educational programs and other needs. The organization also gifted the City of Alexandria $1 million to improve community engagement with the preserve and learning resources for potential visitors.

Some of the attendees included Mayor Justin Wilson, NOVA Parks Board Chair Cate Magennis Wyatt, former Mark Winkler Company President and CEO Randal Kell and Alexandria City Public Schools Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt.

At the ceremony, Kay-Wyatt shared her excitement about the preserve as an educational resource for ACPS students.

“We are grateful to have this opportunity to bring the City of Alexandria students into nature’s classroom,” Kay-Wyatt said. “ … I am so honored that we’re going to have this opportunity and I want to thank everyone for [being] willing to partner and welcome our students.”

Kell, who served as president of the Winkler Botanical Preserve for more than 30 years called the ceremony a “great day” for everyone involved in the ownership transfer.

“In so many ways, this is a match made in heaven. How wonderful it is to have such an experienced, successful organization such as the parks authority, which shares so many of the goals, aspirations and ambitions that the preserve has had for more than 50 years, step up to the plate to lead the preserve for future generations,” he said, specifically thanking NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert for his “steadfast” but “never pushy” interest in working with the preserve.

According to Gilbert, Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced Kell to him several years ago, which led to a continued dialogue and ongoing partnership between the preserve and NOVA Parks. Some examples of this are the several organized hikes of Winkler that NOVA Parks has led over the past few years, complete with naturalists and the handling of off-site parking.

The trusted relationship between the two parties made the eventual decision to transfer ownership smooth and seamless, Gilbert said.

“It’s near and dear to their heart. There’s a time and a place for everything, and they were ready to let others carry their vision and mission on,” he explained.

The Winker Botanical Preserve marks NOVA Parks’ 35th regional park.

From an operations perspective, Winkler closely resembles several of NOVA Parks’ other properties, such as Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington and the Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, in that all three offer summer camps and school programs.

Because of this, Gilbert said NOVA Parks assuming ownership of the preserve is a “very good fit.”

“We have different sites in different places that have a lot of similarities, which means we have the in-house expertise to run a place like Winkler well,” Gilbert said.

Future plans for the site include hiring an onsite manager to work alongside city government and school officials to develop programming options for students. Next year, NOVA Parks also plans to bring back summer camps, which ceased in 2016 after Jodie Smolik, the preserve’s former executive director, retired.

Additionally, Gilbert said that while the site is very well maintained, it currently has inadequate parking. At 10 parking spots – one of which is handicapped only – it’s difficult to organize larger guided hikes and for school groups to visit, since there is not a place for buses to turn around. NOVA Parks is looking to remedy this in the most environmentally sensitive way possible, Gilbert said.

“We don’t need parking for 100 people, but we need parking so that we can have a tree identification hike on a Saturday and be able to have those people come and do that,” Gilbert said. “ … We want people to enjoy nature, and to do that you need them to be able to access the site.”

An ongoing discussion related to the preserve has revolved around how to engage more community members. In fact, more than half of respondents to an ALXNow poll last year said they had never heard of the Winkler Botanical Preserve before. More than anything else, NOVA Parks hopes to change that.

“[Winkler is] really a remarkable forest that’s in the middle of Alexandria,” Gilbert said. “When you’re in the Winkler Preserve, you could easily think you’re in the midst of hundreds of acres because it is such a beautiful, in-tact forest and everywhere you look is just picture perfect. We’d love to be able to share that experience with more people.”