Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center is entering a new phase with a new leader.
Officials at the 300-acre-plus facility dedicated to the study and conservation of native plant life hope to bring more visitors, and board members believe the new head has the pedigree and ability to remind people the center is still a destination.
The board named Mark McKnight its new president, replacing Jennifer Legates, who left in 2015. McKnight, 36, is the co-founder of RootsRated, the Chattanooga-based company that connects users with outdoors experiences.
"We felt like as a board that we wanted to go in a new direction, and his experience with RootsRated was really significant to us," newly appointed board Chairman Jim Catanzaro said.
McKnight also has nonprofit experience that includes board service with the Lula Lake Land Trust, Cumberland Trail Conference and Wild Trails. He worked for Rock/Creek for more than a decade, helping the local retail giant build its brand online and in the community. He hopes to bring his connections and the skills he learned with RootsRated — where he remains on the board — to the position, he said.
McKnight envisions an updated facility with modern advances to enhance visitors' time at the center. He wants to start by connecting the facility with Wi-Fi but also wants to make the experience more user-friendly, with audio tours visitors can listen to by calling a phone number.
"One of the immediate challenges is to revitalize the physical property, everything from the buildings to modernizing the center," he said. "My main challenge is going to be reminding people that we're here."
But first, McKnight said, he is on a fact-finding mission, learning everything he can to help the center grow and improve moving forward.
The Chattanooga Nature Center and Reflection Riding merged in 2011 but remained two entities. In the coming months, the two will be further combined as they become one organization listed as one nonprofit with one board. McKnight will oversee the process.
"A lot of [the staff] has been here a really long time," he said. "I think in a lot of ways I'm taking the lead from the staff that has already been here. The last thing I want to do is come in and screw up a team that has a lot of cohesiveness and is doing a lot of good things."
McKnight officially began in the new role Oct. 9. Larry Zehnder served as the interim director.
"[Zehnder] left us in a much better position than we were in at the end of 2015, and we will long be grateful for his contributions," current chairman David Johnston said.
The center hosts more than 10,000 students each year as well as events, families and others looking to unplug and explore the area. Organization leaders see further potential and believe it can grow. One key area of growth, McKnight believes, is an increase in memberships.
Daily trips to the property cost $10, and memberships are $50 per year. The center also recently launched a student discount for $25 per year.
McKnight and Catanzaro have found many people know of the center but haven't been in years.
"We want to reintroduce people in the community to the asset that is available there," Catanzaro said. "A lot of people probably haven't had a really good experience with Reflection Riding but maybe need to reconnect. We're hoping, that among many other things, [McKnight] is going to do that."