Designs for a new nature center in northern El Paso County could be complete next year, one of the next steps in long-awaited plans to bring community-based programming to a rapidly growing area of the county, according to parks officials.
Population growth and community interest spurred the idea to develop a new nature center in 2013. The county identified the project as one of its objectives in its 2013 Parks Master Plan and in its 2017-2021 Strategic Plan, El Paso County Community Services Executive Director Todd Marts said.
A feasibility study completed in December 2019 by Altitude Land Consultants, with architecture firm Tremmel Design Group, recommended Fox Run Regional Park as the location for the future northern nature center.
The area "is rapidly growing and I think parks like Fox Run and the nature center will really be a treasure to that community," Marts said.
He hopes the northern El Paso County community will embrace the new center just as the communities around the other two nature centers — Bear Creek in southwestern Colorado Springs and Fountain Creek in Fountain — have done.
"So that will be the focus, trying to broaden that community perspective in northern El Paso County," Marts said.
Exact programming at the proposed northern nature center isn't known yet, but officials will develop it using the "very successful programming model of over 30 years at Bear Creek and Fountain nature centers," he said.
When completed, Marts expects schools to take field trips to the new facility and that a series of outdoor events will be put on throughout the year.
He also envisions the structure as a "hub" for community meetings and tourism, since it's closer to Castle Rock in southern Douglas County. After all, he said, Bear Creek and Fountain Creek nature centers are secondary tourist locations in El Paso County.
"People go to see Garden of the Gods and our museums, and if they have more time (the nature centers are) free places to go. I see this one up in Fox Run as kind of a quiet spot in a busy place, so people can go there to relax and enjoy the outdoors," Marts said.
Architects with Tremmel Design Group are working on "a comprehensive design" they hope to finish next year. After that, El Paso County will engage in "a whole series of public process" so residents can provide their feedback on the plans.
"It's not just the building, but we're looking at how it fits into the location, how the exhibits will fit in and how it can serve a wide community," Marts said.
But funding the project has been a challenge over the years, he said.
It could cost about $3.5 million, based on discussions with the architect and the completed feasibility study — but that number could change thanks to the rising cost of construction and materials.
"Everything we're doing is just coming in at a lot more than we'd anticipated or even professional estimates that we've been getting," Marts said.
But where there's a will, there's a way.
Fundraisers hosted by the nonprofit Friends of El Paso County Nature Centers, as well as private donors, have donated at least $1 million to the project.
El Paso County commissioners could also approve allocating an additional $1 million specifically for the northern nature center project in the county's 2023 spending plan. Commissioners are expected to approve next year's budget on Dec. 6.
Other fundraisers are planned, Marts said.
Marts emphasized that the design and construction process will include public engagement.
"We will be reaching out (to the community) for their input on how do we make this a nature center for everyone? We are looking for innovative and unique ideas … but we also want to be a good neighbor and fit into the surroundings," he said.
"We know the nature center is going to be in a well-loved park and we want to minimize the impact of that."
People who would like to donate financially to the project can contact Marts at 719-520-6399 or firstname.lastname@example.org.