Is there life in the Discovery Center plan?

Friday, December 28, 2012
Discovery Center committee members say the nature interpretive center and museum, shown as an architectural rendering, is still a possibility. Although a boardwalk and observation tower were added at Little Storm Lake late this spring, the interpretive center has not moved forward, due to lack of funding.

Nearly a decade after Project AWAYSIS discussion first began, Storm Lake is still waiting for an unfinished project to find some traction - a nature interpretive center and museum.

Officials say discussion and ideas are still very much alive, but that a lack of time and money is holding progress on the complex in limbo.

Known as Storm Lake Watershed Interpretive Center, later rechristened Discovery Center, the plan was first drawn by AWAYSIS architect David Ciaccio, with exhibits to be created by interactive museum display designer Split Rock Studios of St. Paul, Minn.

Proposed designs detailed a two-story, 3,700 square foot building, complete with a large observation window and deck, on the edge of the lagoons, near the shore of Little Storm Lake. Inside, a 2,500 square foot exhibit hall would feature glacial formation of Storm Lake, wind power, a massive three-dimensional model of the aquatic world and high-powered binoculars and remote video to view outdoor habitats.

Other ideas for displays included a virtual thunderstorm to simulate water run-off and hand-powered wind turbines that would light up a model of the city of Storm Lake.

In addition to a classroom, theater, wet lab and gift shop, the building would feature a "green roof" with growing plant life, and a rainwater storage and reuse system.

Eight years ago, the estimated cost for the project was $7.7 million, with $4.2 million for the building, $1.5 million for exhibits and $2 million in endowments to ensure long-term operation.

But right now, committee members say they are focusing on the observation tower and 500-foot boardwalk project, which opened late this spring. The $261,000 project was funded by a HUD grant, the Lake Preservation Association and Paxton Family Trust, with educational kiosk displays designed by Buena Vista University students.

DNR Senior Environmental Specialist Julie Sievers, a member of the Discovery Center committee, said the group is focusing on the boardwalk project and updating the kiosks.

The original kiosk project began earlier this year, led by BVU biology professors Melinda Coogan and Rick Lampe. Students from a wide variety of majors created four-season displays, which tell the story of Storm Lake's ecosystem through basic information about area plants and animals.

"At this point, we are letting people see and use the boardwalk," Sievers said.

Fundraising remains on hold for the interpretive center.

"The design (for the center) is still sitting there, but with all of the fundraising in the community, we have not undertaken a campaign," she noted.

However, Sievers said she remains optimistic that the project will move forward in the near future.

"We have expended the grant money that we had and put some city money into getting the walkway and the observation tower done, and they seem to be really popular with the public," City Manager Jim Patrick says.

As for the proposed complex, "There are some plans, the committee has some ideas," Patrick says - but without funding, the construction cannot be realized.

Patrick revealed that at one point, the city had considered the possibility of obtaining an old railroad depot building and moving it to the site as a start for the Discovery Center, but apparently that option has been abandoned.

The Discovery Center remains on the city's list of goals, he noted, but has effectively been held to a back burner by a series of more immediate projects, the latest of which is an $18.2 million sewer/stormwater mitigation effort that is now underway and will remain front and center for the city well into 2014.

If a major donor were to step forward, it could bring new life to the project, but barring that, it is likely to remain in discussion stage for at least a while longer.

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