The Vail Nature Center needs work, but what kind of work, and at what cost? | VailDaily.com

The Vail Nature Center needs work, but what kind of work, and at what cost?

The Vail Nature Center's 7 acres have remained largely untouched throughout the town's history. But that has led to potentially expensive problems.

The 1940s-vintage house on the site — which isn't open in the winter — is deteriorating and needs a lot of work. The building currently isn't open to the public. Offices and interpretive displays are now housed in a yurt brought in this summer.

The site doesn't meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there's no water or sewer service and the site can't be reached with a fire truck.

But the center is a popular attraction in town for both visitors and locals.

Walking Mountains Science Center Senior Programs Director Lara Carlson said about 7,000 people visit the nature center every season — which runs from June to the end of September. That includes everything from people just strolling through the area or looking at exhibits to those participating in programs. Those programs include bird walks, visits to beaver ponds or, at night, "Stories in the Sky" star-gazing sessions.

In a testament to how dark the nature center building can be, both guests and staffers are asked to bring flashlights to better find their way.

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Surveys say …

The town in 2017 hired the Hopkins Architecture Team to conduct a public survey and examine some options for the future of the facility.

The surveys indicated that people want a nature center that caters to a broader range of people, including the disabled. Visitors also want to see the nature center include displays about the valley's natural history.

Survey respondents also favored creating some kind of education facility at the center.

But that's going to be expensive.

The Vail Town Council at its Tuesday, Sept. 19, meeting agreed to provide about $80,000 for further planning this year. The numbers start to get bigger, and quickly, after that.

While the town owns the nature center property, the town years ago contracted with the Vail Recreation District. The district since 2003 has contracted with Walking Mountains Science Center for day-to-day operations.

Council members have talked about simplifying that arrangement, but that won't save much money when considering the big picture.

Future planning will examine how best to provide access to the disabled, access for fire trucks and water and sewer service. It adds up quickly.

Very preliminary construction budgets range from roughly $800,000 to more than $3 million.

Options range from remodeling or renovating the existing facilities to a "moderate expansion" that might include a new building or a "substantial expansion" of the facilities.

Time for partnerships?

Council member Jenn Bruno said the upper estimates seem "really extravagant" and suggested pursuing some kind of public-private partnership for a big project. That arrangement has worked well for the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.

Carlson said there haven't yet been any discussions with Walking Mountains about a similar partnership. And, she added, Walking Mountains is currently in the midst of fundraising to finish an expansion project at its Avon campus.

Whatever is done at the nature center, Carlson said it shouldn't be on the scale of Walking Mountains' Avon campus.

"The biggest draw (at the nature center) is the preserved part of the land there," she said. "We care about that property as much as the Vail Town Council and town residents. We want to be what's best for (Vail)."

Before any decisions are made, the Hopkins Architecture Team will work on conceptual designs for the future of the nature center. There will be various public meetings for input on what direction the work should take.

Whatever option is ultimately chosen, construction could begin in April 2020.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

Four facts

• Location: Ford Park on the south side of Gore Creek.

• Size: 7 acres.

• Current management: Walking Mountains Science Center.

• There’s no way to get a fire truck into the site and no water available.