Vandals have been breaking into the Neale Woods Nature Center in recent months, causing damage and stalling employees’ progress to restore the building for additional community use.
The building is nestled in the 600-acre park about 10 miles north of downtown Omaha. The park contains 11 miles of trails.
The nature center has housed shows for the Blue Barn Theatre and other events, but employees are working to revitalize the building and ramp up efforts to connect with the community.
Graffiti, vandalism and break-ins are setting them back, however. About 8 a.m. Tuesday, at least three people kicked down a door at the nature center, broke a window to get access to the roof, tore down security cameras, stole water bottles and set off fire extinguishers.
Dan Borgaila, the facilities supervisor for Fontenelle Forest, which owns Neale Woods, said Tuesday was the second time in a month that the building had been broken into, although there is evidence of other vandalism in recent months.
“We’re frustrated, very frustrated that this keeps happening,” Borgaila said. “We’re trying to put money in this place and bring it back to be able to be used by the public. They keep on setting us back.”
The building is now a studio for an artist known as Barber, who is an artist in residence at the Union for Contemporary Art who is working on an installation about the relationship between north Omaha and Neale Woods. Thankfully, Borgaila said, Barber’s art hasn’t been damaged, and officials hope that never happens.
“This artist is the beginning of us using the space again,” said Molly Mullen, a spokeswoman for Fontenelle Forest. “We finally have our team in place that’s ready to bring Neale Woods into the 21st century, and it is just like a gut punch.”
Iowa State University landscaping and architecture students had helped imagine additional uses for the center and created designs for its future. Borgaila hopes to develop a partnership with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s astronomy department because the department has the necessary equipment and Neale Woods is a great spot for stargazing.
Borgaila put up security cameras before the first break-in a couple of months ago, then added more afterward. He caught the intruders on video Tuesday.
More rangers might be dispatched in the area for security purposes. In addition, employees know that a lot of hikers enjoy the area, and they want to spread the word to keep an eye out.
“If you see something, say something,” Mullen said.
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