DUNEDIN — Call it a labor of love. Construction of a nature center is underway on Caladesi Island after years of planning and fundraising efforts.
Design for the Caladesi Discovery Center has been completed and construction began in September. It is expected to be completed by late spring or early summer 2021, said Alexandra Kuchta, Florida Department of Environmental Protection deputy press secretary.
The project is expected to cost approximately $1.6 million with about $724,000 of that coming from DEP.
Friends of the Island Parks President George Skalkeas said the nonprofit organization has raised more than $900,000 for the Caladesi Discovery Center since about 2010.
The center will be an open-air facility at the old observation tower site at Caladesi Island State Park.
A new observation deck at a height of approximately 25 feet above ground level will provide visitors a panoramic view of the undeveloped barrier island. The center will provide hands-on exhibits.
"We've got some ideas," Skalkeas said. "The concept of the project — why are we building this — we want to show the history of the people who live there. We want to talk about the habitat, the wildlife, all that kind of stuff, in general. The final exhibits, if you will, will be determined by the park manager," he said.
The 600-member organization had created a capital campaign over the years and designated proceeds from events such as Island Earth Days for the Discovery Center.
Since the facility has to be ADA compliant, one of the most common ways to accomplish that was to build a ramp.
"But we didn't want to do a ramp. Because it would have been as big as the structure and it would have been unsightly. And nobody uses the ramps anyway," Skalkeas said.
So the organization came up with the concept of an elevator, which drove costs up.
"We think it's vital to the project, and we think that it's going to be greatly appreciated by the park visitors," Skalkeas said.
The Friends were fortunate to have a benefactor, the Francis and Gertrude Levett Foundation of St. Petersburg, he said.
"They have given us close to $300,000, and that will be duly noted in the building itself. We certainly plan to make the world aware of that fortunate occurrence for us," Skalkeas said.
Admission fees are not expected to be charged for entrance alone to the center, said Skalkeas, who loves visiting Honeymoon Island and has been volunteering at the parks since 2004.
Bill Francisco, who is on the board of directors for the Friends, said the organization was glad that about a year ago the DEP said the Discovery Center met the criteria for being a state project and is supervising construction.
"We are really a citizens service organization, " he said.
As a state agency, DEP does not solicit donations for construction projects, Kuchta said.
"However, we work closely with partner organizations, such as the Friends of the Island Parks, to advance our missions," she said.
Caladesi Island is one of the few undeveloped barrier islands on Florida's Gulf Coast, Kuchta said.
"The new Caladesi Island Discovery Center will provide our residents and visitors with an opportunity to connect with one of Florida’s most unique natural resources," she said. The project will preserve and restore the original observation tower site at Caladesi Island State Park. While some aspects of that site were updated or modernized, others — such as the original perimeter wall — were preserved, Kuchta said.
Skalkeas said the Friends will continue to raise more money for the exhibits and displays, yet to be determined, and will continue to help with elevator maintenance costs for the next ten years.
"We will be very proud when this thing gets done," he said.