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Grant approval puts Wildcat Hills project over the top
July 23, 2015 Jerry Purvis   

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With approval of a $100,000 grant from Scotts Bluff County Commissioners, funding for the new expansion of the Wildcat Hills Nature Center has reached its goal.

Scotts Bluff Area Visitors Center Director Brenda Leisy told commissioners on Monday the grant was requested by Platte River Basin Environments. That group’s mission is to preserve, conserve, enhance and restore vital wildlife habitat and natural areas within the North Platte River basin.

The total cost for expanding the Nature Center is about $2.4 million. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is also spending about $1 million for a shooting range just south of the Nature Center.

“We all know the Wildcat Hills are a significant part of our area,” Leisy told the county board. “But its tourism factor is also important. The Nature Center draws about 25,000 guests each year and they also host numerous nature programs for children. About 6,000 to 7,000 children take part in those.”
Leisy said the Nature Center has simply outgrown its space. After the original center was built in the early 1930s, paleontologists about 60 years later found a treasure trove of fossils from about 23 million years ago. A quarry in the Wildcat Hills is at a bend in a very fast-moving river during that prehistoric age. Some of the creatures captured there were camels, three-toed horses, rhinos, slingshot horned deer, tapirs and other mammals.
“None of the fossils that were found are on display in the current building because there’s no room,” Leisy said. “The expansion will give them the space they need to showcase those items.”

She added the expansion will also provide more room for educational opportunities, as well as room for larger meetings.
“They’ve privately raised all the money on their own except for this last grant,” Leisy said. “Numerous foundations and programs throughout the state have contributed.

The $100,000 grant comes from lodging taxes collected for the tourism bureau, so no taxpayer funding is involved. But it would deplete the capital improvements fund for the year.

“We still have plenty of money for operations and promotions,” Leisy said. “No tourism group submitted a request for capital improvements funding last year. No one on our board has knowledge if anyone is planning another capital improvements project this year, so we recommended approval of funding for the Nature Center.”

The tourism grant will help fund additional fossil displays in the Nature Center, as well as required fire suppression equipment.
With approval of the funding, construction of the Nature Center expansion can begin this fall. Completion is expected by the end of summer 2016.
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