Park Welcome & Discovery Center

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On Track for 2021 Opening

On Monday, March 23, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered the indefinite closure of all Florida State Parks, including Lovers Key State Park (LKSP) just off the southern tip of Fort Myers Beach, to assist in the fight against the coronavirus  COVID-19 international pandemic, under the Center for Disease Control guidelines to maximize social distancing and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. While the Governor’s directive closed LKSP to the general public, one extremely important project continues!

“The Governor’s action did not stop the construction of our long-awaited Welcome & Discovery Center (WDC),” reported LKSP Manager Katie Moses! “We are installing the ‘Mangrove’ pilings right now; we call them that because they resemble mangroves for an artsy look to the base of the building. Once these are in place, construction crews will start on the actual form of the building. At that point, we will begin the framing for the elevated floor and then the walls, as well as the electrical and plumbing elements. The preliminary underground utilities are in place, with work yet to come with Florida Power & Light, along with water and sewer that will happen later this spring.”

“Mangrove pilings” that will support the center are being placed this month. Photo by Katie Moses.

Katie explained, “The crews are working pretty quick right now, and we are still on schedule for our grand opening in January 2021, but due to the coronavirus and how the world seems to change by the minute, we take nothing for granted. On top of that, I almost hate to remind everyone that we will soon be in the 2020 hurricane season, so I hope the coronavirus does not hit us too hard and we have a quiet hurricane year. Those two huge unknowns can delay work, but for now it remains full speed ahead!”

The WDC is going up in Parking Lot #3 “that is right near the kayak launch area,” Katie added, “so if you walk over the pedestrian bridge from the main parking lot, you can see it, though you do have to peak around all the construction equipment and storage containers, and you cannot directly access the location, as it is an active work zone. As construction progresses, however, and the building begins to rise, you will be able to watch its progress and that is an exciting thing!”

With construction well underway, Katie’s excitement level increases by the day. “To be honest, though, I have been excited since the first day the construction fence went up,” she said with a big smile! “I really enjoy monitoring the progress, as now I can literally see changes every day. It is impossible for me not to be excited, because my first day at LKSP was nine years ago, and this was already the dream of the park staff and volunteers back then.”

She does not feel that the average park visitor or local residents yet appreciate how much the WDC will change the LKSP experience for the better. “Right now, when you enter, the only park professional or volunteer you may see is at our little Ranger Station, so if you have a question about our habitats or wildlife or anything else, you must double back to the Ranger Station to track someone down. The WDC will literally become the heart of the park, with top notch exhibits and displays about our habitats and wildlife, new programs like lectures and educational presentations, a site for school field trips, indoor facilities and staff and volunteers to assist you. LKSP is already a terrific place to visit and recreate, but the WDC will make your experience here extraordinary!”

Exhibits

While the State of Florida is paying for the new $4-million WDC construction cost, the Friends of Lovers Key State Park (FOLKS) pledged to raise an additional $1.5-million for the Center’s educational exhibits and furnishings, with Split Rock Studios from St. Paul, Minnesota, constructing the exhibits. These displays will allow LKSP visitors to follow their own individual curiosity, as each one serves as a stand-alone exhibit, so you never have to worry about losing the narrative to understand their meaning. There will be ample space between the displays to accommodate large crowds on rainy days as well for mobility issues. Overhead clouds and seagulls suspended from the ceiling will give it a feeling of space.

Exhibits will focus on various aspects of the park, such as its history, what it means to be a barrier island, estuary information and recreational activities, along with its Gift Shop and office. Visitors will understand that the land goes back to the Calusa Indians or possibly even before, and how the State of Florida, Carl E. Johnson, and Lee County preserved it from development to become the public treasure it is for all to enjoy. Exhibit walls will feature mounted photographs and objects like shells used by native peoples or gear from fishing camps to provide visual cues of each time period, so visitors know that LKSP is much more than just an amazing beach.

There will be an interactive barrier island map exhibit to provide perspective and orient people to where they and the park are, with pushbuttons that light up the barrier islands to illuminate what they were like in the 1940, 1950s, 1980s, and today. It includes graphics panels to point out various habitats to explore, so people will know what to look for, along with recreational opportunities. It will offer interchangeable water quality information about estuaries or Red Tide, along with fun moments of discovery, like critters that live in the sand under your feet. Reading rails will explain what you encounter near the water, like the wrack line and seaweeds, with real-life replicas, where you lift lid doors to find brief descriptions of where you can go in the park to explore these environments.

Displays & Elements

The “On The Dunes” display island focuses on nesting sea turtles and dune plants, with items like sea oats and a loggerhead turtle replica who just made her nest to lay eggs. It will have various bird species, with replica scrape nests and slightly camouflaged eggs, to let people know to be careful when exploring this habitat. The display will have information about safe turtle lighting, so the little hatchlings live, and why you should not scare birds off their nests to avoid cooking their eggs, but in a positive approach and not wagging a finger, so people get on-board. There will be a digital screen with a looping video showing baby turtles moving safely to the Gulf, so visitors see why turtle-friendly lighting is so important, along with Roseate spoonbills and Wilson’s plovers overhead, to better match this scene.

“Maritime Hammock” will be an illustration of a forest canopy, with pushbuttons to hear birds like a screech owl and warbler, to become familiar with what you will experience as you walk that area. The display will have things left behind by animals, to teach kids and adults how to spot wildlife, because often when people look around quickly, they do not see anything and think nothing is there, but if you know what to look for, you may see 25 little critters all around your feet, like tiny crabs, as well as other animals and plants that are a big part of a Hammock habitat, like butterflies, Gumbo limbo trees, and Sabal palms. Another topic is invasive plant species, like the Brazilian peppertree and Australian pine.

Fort Myers Beach-Lovers Key-Welcome and Discovery Center-Rendering
An exterior view of the LKSP Welcome and Discovery Center. Photo provided.

“Coastal Strand Environment” will not have an overhead canopy here, as it is an open habitat. It will feature seagrapes on an angle, to show how sea spray gives them that wind-swept movement, as well as surprising plants people will not believe are in LKSP, such as Prickly pears, and information about animals like snakes, with most not poisonous. A major component will be the Gopher tortoise and its burrow – the community center of the neighborhood – where you can lift doors to showcase some of the 350 animals that use those burrows as their homes as well, like cottontail rabbits, snakes and beetles. There will be another digital screen of a Gopher tortoise, showing how surprisingly fast they move and how they dig their burrow.

The “Mangrove Estuary” will shrink you down, in a larger than life sensation! Its huge mangrove roots will allow you to walk right through them, from an underwater viewpoint, to get a different perspective and see all the little creatures that start their lives in mangrove roots. A spoonbill nests overhead as you learn about surprising creatures that live among the roots, like seahorses. Water quality is a major component, as clean water is crucial to the four types of LKSP mangroves.

The “Outdoor Adventures & Donor Panels” are the final things you see before you head out into the park, as it highlights the numerous outdoor adventures you can enjoy at LKSP! Photographs and a digital screen shows hiking, biking, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, ranger-led programs, and more, with room to promote current or seasonal events. It will encourage Social Media posts of your LKSP experiences, and the ‘Donor Wall’ will recognize those who contributed at the four levels.

Finally, the “Adult & Calf Manatee” sculpture will be the WDC’s showpiece, right at the main entrance! The manatees will be lifesize, with the adult 13 feet and calf five feet, simulated with a waterline and seagrass, and surrounded by six reading rails of manatee information, including their less-than-positive interactions with humans. They will be fiberglass and durable to hold up in the all weather. Katie predicts that the Manatee sculpture “will be the most photographed part of the entire WDC, and will show up on every Social Media site all across the world!”

What’s In A Name?

Lovers Key State Park is made up of Lovers Key, Black Island, and Inner and Long Keys, composing 1,616 acres. Initially, its remote and solitary beaches were only accessible by boat, hence the name. Black Island is from Black Augustus, a captured pirate who later escaped and made his home there. Inner Key is because it is between Black Island and Lovers Key, while no one is quite sure about the moniker for Long Key. The property faced the threat of development in the early 1980s, but community leaders stepped in to halt that, with Florida acquiring the land in 1983. Lee County owned the adjacent Carl E. Johnson Park, with the two eventually merging in 1996. Today, LKSP annually ranks in the top four most-visited Florida State Parks, with the Welcome & Discovery Center expected to boost that figure even more. LKSP is at 8700 Estero Boulevard, just off the southern tip of Fort Myers Beach; for information call 239-463-4588 or see www.floridastateparks.org. To learn more about the Florida State Park System, see that website or call 850-245-2157.