When Kristen Lycett joined the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center in early 2020, the then 14-year-old non-profit was located where it got its start, on Tilghman Island. Under the aegis of founder Kelley Phillips Cox, the center ran a robust environmental program to educate the public on maintaining a healthy Chesapeake Bay. With a focus on oyster aquaculture, the center began an oyster restoration project, planting over 835,000 oysters. The center also acquired an oyster lease and began selling oysters to local restaurants to underwrite its diverse operations which also included a visitor’s center and classroom on three acres by the Tilghman Island bridge. There was even a skipjack that took visitors out to the oyster reef.
In addition, the center housed an aquarium for up close interaction with creatures that depend on clean Chesapeake waterways—turtles, crabs, and dozens of native fish. Educational outreach was conducted by bus. Lycett, who has a PhD from the University of Maryland in marine science, was brought in to manage the center’s popular Fishmobile, a school bus colorfully transformed into a rolling aquarium for transporting tanks of creatures to local schools and community events.
Then along came COVID.
Just five weeks into her new job, the pandemic brought operations at Phillips Wharf to a grinding halt. Lycett, said, “We closed to the public, canceled all in-person programming, and created a virtual Fishmobile program for fourth graders in Talbot County.” Going from in-person to onscreen was a big challenge. “It was definitely hard,” said Lycett. “I have minimal video editing skills and had minimal resources at the time.” And because not all students had access to the Internet, Lycett had to come up with alternative formats for students. She said, “A lot of work went into making this program accessible.”
But as Lycett dedicated herself to maintaining the Fishmobile program, the shutdown set off a cascade of bad news. When restaurants closed, revenue from oyster sales plummeted. A tropical storm later in the summer caused costly damage to the center’s classroom and aquarium facilities. In spring 2021 the Philips Wharf board made the hard decision to sell its assets, divesting itself of the oyster farm and then the environmental center. When Phillips Wharf closed down, all that remained was a small endowment and the Fishmobile. Heartbreakingly, in the midst of this, Kelley Phillips Cox died.
But a new door was waiting to open. As it happened, the Town of Easton had planned to move its public works facility from an industrial area on Easton Point to another location. In its place, the town began creating a park. Back in 2009, then Mayor Bob Willey determined he could provide something residents had long asked for: access to Easton’s waterfront on the Tred Avon River. He asked newly elected council member Megan Cook to oversee park development. Cook led the effort with a focus on environmental stewardship, using native plantings, developing a living shoreline, and favoring greenspace over hard-top and cement. From the start, the town wanted an organization to help visitors to enjoy and learn about the park’s natural resources.
“It turned out that the town was looking for an environmental center for Easton Point Park,” said Phillips Wharf board vice-president Barbara Boyd. “The Town of Easton was very, very accommodating.” The Phillips Wharf board had been exploring a move to Dorchester County but, she said. “We owed it to Kelley (Cox) to keep the center in Talbot County. And Easton is a much easier location to get students here for our programming. For Easton, Phillips Wharf brings educational, environmental, and community purpose to help visitors understand how to support the Chesapeake Bay.”
It was a natural fit. Mayor Megan Cook said, “It’s a great partnership. Phillips Wharf is an asset to the community and a win-win for everyone involved.”
The Fishmobile and its menagerie rolled into the park in March 2022. Its new home consists of office spaces and open bays that the town had used for parking trucks and storing materials. As the public works moves out, the center is moving in. “Our goal is to turn the closest garage bay to the building into additional aquarium space and aquarium prep space,” said Lycett, who is now the center’s Executive Director. By September she hopes to have access to more space to use as classrooms.
Phillips Wharf is adapting its offerings to Easton Point Park. “From the new location most of Phillips Wharf’s charter is still the same. But there’s less aquaculture and history and more emphasis on STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics),” Boyd said. At Easton Point, the center provides free onsite educational tours where children have hands-on experience with a mini oyster reef. “They test the waters and count and measure the oyster spats,” Boyd said. “We offer this as summer programming that camps can take advantage of.” In July came big news and a big boost for the center’s educational programming. Phillips Wharf was awarded a three-year NOAA B-WET grant, the Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE), to teach environmental literacy to all fourth-graders in Talbot County. Lycett also hopes to eventually offer adult education programs on topics in ecology and sustainable living. In addition, the tireless Lycett manages a scaled down oyster growing program on Tilghman Island. She has also run a very successful spring cleanup called “Tidy Up Talbot.” As Boyd put it, “We are unbelievably lucky to have Kristen onboard.”
And, of course, there’s the ever-popular Fishmobile. If you miss the bus this summer, you can always come to the park to meet Larry, the irrepressible Diamondback terrapin, and other creatures at the aquarium. “Our animal collection changes throughout our programming season as we find species in our oyster cages or go out and catch them,” notes Lycett. “We do release some animals to minimize the amount of care and food required during months when our Fishmobile program is not running (end of November through March). However, the turtles are with us for life, so we care for them year round.” In the end Lycett hopes the animal experiences are memorable. “My hope is our visitors take something from that interaction–whether that it’s OK to be excited and interested in something or a love for weird critters or just an interest in marine science and the Chesapeake Bay.”
While Phillips Wharf busily settles into its new home, Easton Point Park also continues to transform. Town Manager Don Richardson says the town is now in the planning phase to build a marina with a boat ramp and parking by the water. The building opposite to the one occupied by Phillips Wharf will be torn down to create parking space for a new entrance to the park accessed from Flood Street. Eventually there will be trails, including a connection to Easton’s expanding Rail-to-Trails paths. There’s much to see and more to come at Easton Point Park.
Marion Arnold is leader of the Plastic-Free Easton action committee. She lives in Easton. For more information on Phillips Wharf please go here.