What a difference 10 years can make.

Severe budget cuts for 2009 hit El Paso County departments hard: Services were cut and jobs eliminated.

Back then, Todd Marts, County Nature Centers Recreation/Cultural Services manager, was alone at work on shutdown day in a newly empty Bear Creek Nature Center when he saw three little kids peeking through the glass front door and crying. The sign on the door said the center had been closed. But Marts felt so awful that he let them in anyway, one last time.

At the 10th annual Happy Trails BBQ and Fundraiser presented by Friends of El Paso County Nature Centers on Aug. 23 at Bear Creek Nature Center, Marts was smiling. He told guests that the summer nature camps sell out, there are new exhibits, he has five full-time and six seasonal employees at Bear Creek and Fountain Nature Centers, and programs have nearly doubled.

“Now, thanks to the county and people like you we are considering a third nature center on the north side,” he said. The county has a feasibility study underway.

And, said Marts, when he looked up recently at the sounds of unhappy kiddos, their tears were flowing because they didn’t want to leave.

The sold-out fundraiser drew 150 and raised $11,000 for the nature centers. That helps keep costs down for programs and goes toward scholarships. Next year’s Happy Trails could possibly be designated toward the new north center, Marts said.

Happy Trails sponsors were the grill/catering team from Buffalo Gals, Heuberger Motors, Sovereignty Wines and Bell Brothers Brewing.

The popular dessert tables were filled by Coquette’s Bakery, Paninos, Garden of the Gods Gourmet, Jack Quinn’s, Nothing Bundt Cakes, Poor Richards, Wimberger’s, Cupcake Girls and Great Harvest Bread Company.

Photo gallery: gazette.com/life/around-town

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