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Local group proposes Nature Center expansion
September 02, 2010 Jerry Purvis    Jerry Purvis/Gering Citizen

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Governor Dave Heineman, left, visits with Russ McKeehan, superintendent of the Wildcat Hills Nature Center, during a visit to the center Aug. 26.

Nebraska Gov. David Heineman met with Hod Kosman, board member of Platte River Basin Environments, to learn about a proposed expansion of the Wildcat Hills Nature Center south of Gering. Joining the governor were representatives from the Nature Conservancy and the Wildcat Hills Nature Center for a tour of the center and surrounding area.

Although the state is facing an extremely tight budget, Heineman said all such projects begin with a dream. State Senator John Harms, with the governor’s help, was able to secure initial funding to have some architectural drawings made along with a tentative design for the center. “This isn’t the best financial time in the world,” Kosman said, “but if we don’t have a plan, we can’t execute.”

Jamie Winters with Studio 120 Architecture, a division of Baker and Associates, told the group the plan proposes to add another 8,000 square feet to the existing 5,000 square foot center. The expansion would allow for more classroom and exhibit space. Plus the new center would be visible from Highway 71 as people drive into the valley.

“We’re finding that for a lot of people coming into the valley or heading to Fort Robinson or the Black Hills, this is their first stop,” said Anne James of the Wildcat Hills Nature Center and new director of the Riverside Discovery Center. “We’ve outgrown this facility as far as educational use.”

Last year, about 7,000 students attended the numerous activities at the center. Visitation is around 10,000 to 12,000 a year. “We partnered with Game and Parks when we built this facility,” Kosman said. “We didn’t know at the time a major paleontology site would be discovered just down the hill.”

The burial place of hundreds of prehistoric mammals was discovered when the Department of Roads was widening Highway 71 through the Wildcat Hills. “This site helps fill in the story about mammals and about how they began to develop,” Kosman told the governor. “We’ve also found about 40 species that were unknown before. This is of great value, but we have no place to properly interpret that period of history.”

Kosman said a project of this sort begins with philanthropy, with private citizens and groups that have a passion for preserving and promoting our natural resources. And while any construction might be years down the road, the initial design gives people a more concrete idea what the project is about.
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