In nature, there are no right angles. So when planning for Manatee County’s first true environmental classroom, it was natural for Charlie Hunsicker to want one without any boxes, squares or rectangles.
“It’s the intent to insight the wonder of exploration of this property without the right angles not found in nature,” Manatee County’s parks and natural resources director said as he watched construction of the environmental classroom at Robinson Preserve.
This is an environmental classroom unlike any other in Florida.
Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County parks and natural resources director
Construction crews were on-site Friday morning working on the 1,700-square-foot environmental center, elevated boardwalks and restrooms. The project is about 40 percent complete.
Backwood Bridges LLC, based in the Panhandle town of Freeport, was sawing the edges of the boardwalk, which leads up to the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology.
“We will have programming for all ages focused on learning about the science of restoration, the science of ecology and how things work together in nature,” Hunsicker said.
By late August, construction of the environmental classroom should be complete with a soft opening anticipated for September. The county commission authorized Willis A. Smith Construction Inc. to take on the $3.8 million project last August.
“People are going to love this,” said Damon Moore, the county’s environmental program manager. “It’s going to be cool.”
The Mosaic Company Foundation won naming rights for the center after it gave $3.2 million to Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which purchased the property for an expansion of Robinson Preserve and then donated it to Manatee County.
“This is an environmental classroom unlike any other in Florida,” Hunsicker said.
Modeled after an octagonal classroom in Rutledge, Ga., the Robinson Preserve classroom doesn’t have any corners.
“It’s kind of a circular treehouse affair,” Hunsicker said. “The building itself is constructed with two levels. A periscope type of affair at the top connected by a spiral staircase to the main floor, two separate adjoining rooms to an open air classroom inside all exposed wood, wood beam and heavy timber construction.”
Work on a canopy walk and playground, which will cost $900,000 and be funded with parks impact fees, could begin by the fall.
The NEST is part of the ongoing $14 million Robinson Preserve expansion, which is approximately 70 percent complete and expected to open in 2018. Since November 2015, work has been underway on expanding the existing 487-acre Robinson Preserve, which opened in 2008 off 99th Street Northwest. Construction crews are turning the 150 acres of farmland on the southeast edge of the preserve into more nature trails, marshes, emergent islands, a canopy walk and the environmental and education center.
The rest of the expansion is on a slight standstill as the county waits on final funding commitments from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to connect it to Perico Bayou and Palma Sola Bay. The remaining permits should come next month, Hunsicker said.
“Once that is done, we will have saltwater habitat, freshwater habitat, hiking trails and the beginnings of a restoration project that will probably take a decade to complete,” he said.
As Hunsicker walked the elevated boardwalks through the canopy of trees more than 100 years old Friday, his excitement was uncontained.
“There is a transition always from paper to product,” he said. “Just like an anxious homebuilder, I’ve been watching this come up stick by stick, nail by nail. It is very exciting to see the construction progress going forward.”