LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Game and Fish Commissioners and director Pat Fitts heard a presentation of planned exhibits for the Northwest Arkansas Nature and Education Center, now under construction in Springdale, at the commissioners’ regular monthly meeting Thursday, Feb. 21.
Colin Cook and Sarah Bartlett of the design firm Split Rock Studios of St. Paul, Minnesota, presented a full rundown with a slide presentation of the installation planned for the new nature center, which will be situated just off Interstate 49. Split Rock has designed and installed exhibits for several similar projects across the country, and it was the firm hired to build and install exhibits for the state’s first nature center, the Gov. Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center in Pine Bluff, some two decades ago, according to the AGFC’s Eric Maynard.
Maynard, who has run the Pine Bluff nature center and is the AGFC’s education division assistant chief of facilities, is on the team overseeing the Springdale project. Maynard, as well as Education Division chief Tabbi Kinion, also presented information about the nature center plans and answered the commissions’ questions as to why certain selections were made.
The entire 61-acre complex will include outdoor archery and an archery education pavilion, northern bobwhite education pavilion and an exhibit of quail habitat restoration, walking trails, restored streams, a grassland restoration, a fly-fishing education site, a “critter” area, and outdoor classrooms. Recently, a bike route was planned through the site amenities for increased bike traffic are being explored, according to AGFC deputy director Chris Colclasure.
Kinion said the exhibit portion of the nature center makes up a third of the complex.
“There will be people who are new to Springdale and others who have a long history or connection with the city who will visit our nature center,” Kinion said. “We want to be responsive to both of those needs.”
Visitors will see a large native rock wall with a terrarium at one end, with geese and other birds hung from the ceiling. Large-scale digital graphics are planned along that tall rock wall side. Glass will make up the outer wall, with “reading rails” for visitors to learn more about the area, conservation efforts and other AGFC programs. The idea is to educate visitors on all the AGFC is doing, Cook said.
Bartlett added, “We plan in our information area to have a map to orient visitors to where they are in Arkansas and how it relates to the rest of the state. They may not know that this state has many beautiful divisions to it.”
Bartlett noted that the flow of the exhibit area is like a stream that will literally channel visitors along to a number of information kiosks and displays. Plans also call for in-floor digital screens that are triggered when visitors step on them.
“It’s not just a big white building,” she said. “It really should represent Northwest Arkansas. It should be a beautiful site, and it should be exciting to adults and children. It should give kids the feeling they want to explore the outdoors, that feeling of being out in nature, enjoying a safe experience in real nature.”
A warm-water aquarium with colorful, native species will transition visitors to an area that stresses an upland prairie feel, complete with a bear den that will allow hands-on exploration.
“All the exhibits offer a lot of opportunities to tell these stories and engage all numbers of visitors,” Bartlett said.
Commissioner Bobby Martin asked the presenters if the exhibit setup was “the right content for young people,” and noted that Northwest Arkansas was seeing a boom in similar facilities for families, such as the Scott Family Amazeum, a large interactive children’s museum in Bentonville.
Maynard pointed out that the ever-expanding region is home to an estimated 100,000 school-aged children, with that number only expected to swell. And Kinion, noting the way the designed glass outer walls would show off all the surrounding land and activities at the center beyond the exhibit space, said, “Getting (visitors) outside is the most exciting piece to me.” Colclasure said, “The exhibit building will serve as the hub. It’s a great way to blend indoors and outdoors.”
The nature center and exhibits are being funded by AGFC funds and generous contributions from donors and private entities, including a $5 million matching grant from Johnelle Hunt, wife of the late trucking magnate J.B. Hunt. The project began two years ago with the land donation from the City of Springdale.
Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI4bjUZPH1M to view a video of the nature center's plans.