Helen Keller observed, “Nature has the power to renew and refresh our minds, our bodies and our spirits.” Three years after a lightning-ignited fire at Huntington Beach, nature’s showcase is getting some help doing just that.
Surrounded by trees, marsh and the progressive noise of the pile driver beyond the elevated walkway, Huntington Beach State Park Manager Brenda Magers announced, “We have started construction on the nature center; we are anticipating it will open this spring, 2020.” The newly-constructed center, which uses the same Michael Kohn blueprint of the previous building, will be 4,500 square feet of usable space and include a birding area, a classroom and an exhibit area with live animals, including a touch tank. “The community outreach and the interest from the public has been very exciting and very rewarding,” said Magers who acknowledged $120,000 in private donations for the exhibit area that is projected to cost $187,000.
Park Naturalist Mike Walker elaborated on the types of animals that the center expects to feature for its visitors. “We’ll have some of the major exhibits that were very popular with our visitors. Of course, the touch tank will have stingray, horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, sea stars. We will have baby alligators again; we’ve already secured the permit for that,” said Walker. In addition, there will be a variety of snakes for the reptile programs and mostly marine invertebrates that are collected through the center’s program.
The initial groundbreaking on the $1.2 million facility yielded to other priorities beginning with the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Recovery efforts following the South Carolina wildfires in November of 2016, Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Florence September 2018 also diverted resources from the State Park Service’s engineering and construction departments to deal with the disasters.
Paul McCormack, South Carolina State Director was on hand to answer questions concerning the selection of Consensus Construction, a firm based in Myrtle Beach. “We go through a state procurement process where they put out for public bid. Given the design, they do a pre-site meeting where they talk about the project, answer any questions—they have to be answered in writing so that anybody who is interested in bidding on the process has all the same information. Then we have a sealed bid,” explained McCormack. After the low bidder was selected, according to McCormack, a protest period was established, allowing other people who bid on the job to state their objections.
“We’re really excited about our contractor; they’re very enthusiastic and professional with an outstanding quality of work,” Magers continued. “The Nature Center that we had previously worked great and it served the park perfectly so the new building will be based on that. We had updated all of the new exhibits, with the most up-to-date scientific knowledge,” said Magers. “It’s a memory-maker,” she reflected, “so people remember coming here with their children, watching their child hold a starfish. There’s a lot of emotional connection to the building and really what goes on in the building, so I would say without a doubt, daily, if not multiple times a day, we’re asked about the nature center. Everyone is incredibly excited to see it.”
Two construction workers in hard hats took time from their duties to discuss the center’s progress beside their orange safety-fence. “It’s gettin’ there,” said Cameron Smith, “we’re starting to put in new pilings.”
“That’ll be the foundation of the building,” added co-worker Joe Intile. “It’s really interesting to watch,” pointing to the tall timbers being lifted off of their trailer with a crane.
Huntington Beach State Park Senior Park Ranger Carley Wenderlich, who also interned at the nature center, spoke briefly about the center’s anticipated re-opening. “This is a really exciting project and something really close to my heart,” she said. “This is where I got my start in the Park Service, and we are really excited to have this as an opportunity for our park and for the Park Service in general. It’s going to be a great place to be able to have awesome programs for our visitors and just to get people excited and interested in nature.”
Huntington State Park welcomed over 875,000 visitors last year. The nature center itself hosted approximately 40,000 guests annually before the July 2016 fire. Contributions and spring field trip reservations are being accepted at https://www.scprt.com/parks