MANATEE -- The county's popular Robinson Preserve, which already draws 300,000 visitors every year, is planning a major expansion that will help solidify it as one of Tampa Bay's most significant eco-attractions.
Plans call for a variety of nature trails, a "canopy walk" through old-growth trees, playgrounds, another kayak launch and storage area, and an education center that will mimic the leafy grace of a treehouse.
The 150-acre addition to the original 487 acres at the northwest Bradenton preserve will also sport a lake, incorporating shorebird nesting areas with an assortment of low-level marshes and emergent islands, says Charlie Hunsicker, the county's director of natural resources.
"I think we have finally recognized the unique and special values of holding some of our coastal lands to their environmental potential," he said.
The property added last winter skirts the southeast edge of the preserve, and was originally lush with rich native growth; but was later converted to farming uses that disturbed its natural
Re-creation and restoration of its original flora and fauna will provide special places for visitors "where we have been able to turn back the clock," Hunsicker explained.
"We'll be contouring some dramatic elevations, like we have been able to construct at Emerson Preserve, so our landscaping of those features resemble true Florida hardwood hammocks, along with other areas for pine tree plantings, probably slash pine, in an effort to recreate the vegetation and habitat that were there at the turn of the century," Hunsicker said.
Also among the plans is an 1,730-square-foot education center to be named The Mosaic Center for Nature Exploration, Science and Technology. The Mosaic Company Foundation, affiliated with the phosphate giant of the same name, won naming rights to the center after it donated $3.2 million to buy the land for the expansion through a third party, which then conveyed it back to Manatee County.
Plans for the center include an indoor-outdoor classroom modeled after a similar facility at Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, Ga., Hunsicker said.
The education and environmental center will provide an "accessible treehouse type experience for children of all ages," plans said.
The "green" facility was developed with the intent to provide visitors with a "sense of wonder" and nature-based play space, while still allowing for classroom-style activities, according to county documents.
"As the structure itself incorporates many 'green' building practices, visitors also learn about sustainability and resource conservation," one description said.
The center's design will result in a "very exciting and innovative" structure that can serve all ages and physical abilities, Hunsicker said.
The cost of restoration is about $4 million, which could come from grants stemming from the 2010 BP oil spill, and/or from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, he said.
County officials sent out 22 postcards to neighbors Wednesday inviting them to a public meeting set for 6 p.m., July 15 at the Palma Sola Botanical Garden, 9800 17th Ave. N.W., Bradenton.
The meeting will be open to the public.
Among the topics will be a site plan and development proposals for the expansion, according to county records.
William C. Robinson, president of Robinson Farms Inc., whose family is the preserve's namesake and was the seller of the parcel for expansion, said he had heard plenty of rumors about plans for the property, but was unfamiliar with the details.
"Of course, we're very pleased to see it expanded," he said.
The Manatee County Commission is slated to consider approval of a site plan and management of the expansion on Sept. 5, county documents said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.