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Lovers Key Welcome and Discovery Center groundbreaking takes place this week

December 5, 2018
By MEGHAN BRADBURY ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

After almost a decade in the making, a ground-breaking ceremony for a new Welcome and Discovery Center will be held at Lovers Key State Park for VIP guests this week.

Friends of Lovers Key President Richard Donnelly said the idea of the Welcome and Discovery Center began about 10 years ago. The park service always had a master's plan for Lovers Key, including a unit management plan to someday build a visitor center at the park.

"At that point, it was the third most visited park in Florida," Donnelly said. "They didn't have anything for people to go inside, except a gazebo, and that was not air-conditioned."

Members of the nonprofit group FOLKS stepped up to see how they could help raise funds to build the visitor center.

"We hired a fundraising consultant," he said. "We didn't get too far."

The consultant worked with them for a couple of years.

FOLKS began reaching out to communities like Bonita Springs, Fort Myers Beach and Estero, along with talking to their state representative, Matthew Caldwell.

"As a citizen support organization, we are under the charter and are not allowed to lobby, but we can as individuals (who) support a cause, and that is what happened," Donnelly said. "A couple members of FOLKS, acting as private citizens, engaged the local community and engaged Caldwell. It took us three years with the legislature to get the deal through."

The legislature granted Lovers Key State Park $4 million to build the visitor center at the park. He said the architectural drawing is complete and a contractor, Owen-Ames-Kimball, was hired in the fall.

On Thursday, Dec. 6, a groundbreaking ceremony will be held for the new Welcome and Discovery Center.

The project will get under way in January 2019 and will take a year to complete.

Donnelly said the ground breaking ceremony is invitation-only for people who had an active role in making the center a reality.

"The head of the park service is going to come down and make a presentation," he said. "We have the top guys coming down."

Although the legislature put forth $4 million for the building, the FOLKS are faced with the daunting task of raising $1.5 million to outfit the building, which includes the exhibits.

"That's a tall order for a small nonprofit organization like ours," Donnelly said. "We need donors to step forward and help us out."

The Welcome and Discovery Center is about 4,000 square feet under air. The elevated building has a very unique spiral ramp system leading into it.

"One of the neatest things is there will be a sculpture of a mama manatee and calf," Donnelly said.

The sculpture will be located outside in the middle of the spiral ramp where, he said, it will offer a "selfie" opportunity.

"They will be very special and sort of become the trademark of the building, once we see those manatees in place," Donnelly said.

The center will be built on stilts that resemble mangrove roots.

"It is a very unique idea and an unusual, beautiful building," Donnelly said.

The building will consist of two main areas, the exhibit halls and a community room with a laboratory area.

There will also be a little bookstore, an office for staff, a storage area for furniture, restrooms, and a small kitchen for catering events.

A covered teaching deck will be located off the community room.

Donnelly said this will be a nice feature because they could fit approximately 200 people into the space when the doors are open.

"It's a very simple building, but very functional. The building will really focus on education and learning and what we call, the joy of discovery. There is discovery in learning," Donnelly said.

The exhibit hall will feature about $900,000 worth of state-of-the-art environmental exhibits detailing the four ecosystems that exist at Lovers Key State Park.

Split Rock Studios, a company based out of Minnesota, has been hired to do the exhibits.

"They are an acknowledged leader in the field of environmental exhibits. They have done some work at Ding Darling," he said. "It's a very complex and very upscale kind of exhibit that they are building."

One of the exhibits will focus on mangroves.

"You sort of walk under the mangrove roots and up above you is a kayak. You get a feeling of being in the mangrove swamp," Donnelly said.

In addition to the four ecosystems, he said there will also be a scavenger hunt for the kids, special lighting, and sculpted turtles and birds.

There will also be reading rails and interactive video screens where visitors can touch and feel things.

A large map will show how the islands have changed over time.

Overall, there will be 60 different features.

The Welcome and Discovery Center will be located in the larger parking lot past the ranger station.

"Visually, you will see it when you pass the ranger station. You will see it on the right, the roof top line," Donnelly said.

The Welcome and Discovery Center will be a great asset to the park and the Southwest Florida community.

"It does more than service the park. It services the communities that surround it," Donnelly said.

In order to achieve its goal, FOLKS has hired a full-time fundraising consultant and a part-time grant writer.

"Both of these individuals are showing some progress. It is a slow task," he said.

Those who would like to make a donation to the Welcome and Discovery Center can call Donnelly at 239-459-7045.



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