Welcome and Discovery Center Rises

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Early 2021 Opening Targeted at Lover’s Key State Park

When you pass through the Ranger Station entry at Lovers Key State Park (LKSP) and drive roughly a half-mile down the main road, a sign directs you to a blind right-hand turn to Parking Lot #3. As soon as you make that zig, an unexpected sight literally catches you by surprise – the currently under-construction Welcome & Discovery Center (WDC) rising majestically above the park!

“You come around that corner and suddenly there is the building, and that initial sight never gets old,” marveled Deb Voorhees, Executive Director of The Friends of Lovers Key State Park (FOLKS). “I’ve been talking about this for three years, but we have other FOLKS Board Members who have been dreaming about this for over a decade, so I can only imagine their excitement. When you climb the construction stairs and see the second floor view, it fills me full of chills and gives me a sense of purpose.”

Really Big Deal

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The view from the Community Room observation deck!

“From the ground up, this is an interesting structure,” added Scott Reynolds, the Construction Supervisor from the Owens Ames Kimball Company general contractor from Gateway, Florida. “The pilings resemble Mangrove trees and that alone makes it unique! The outside walls are now up and we are currently working on the roof joints and ridge beams, with the roof to follow. I would say that right now, the outside structure in basically 60% complete, and we are on track to finish the rest of the exterior by the end of the year. Fortunately, the coronavirus did not cause us to have to shut down construction at any point and, to be honest, we were actually able to speed everything up a bit because, when LKSP closed in mid-March for about five weeks, we did not have any park visitors to work around. This was especially true when we poured the concrete flooring, as we brought through 340 cement trucks!”

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Construction crews work on the preparation kitchen area.

FOLKS is already planning for an early 2021 Ribbon Cutting, with a March 2021 “White Tie” Opening Gala, Deb reported. “No one knows what the coronavirus situation will be like at that time, but since the exhibit area and conference room are on the elevated second floor, underneath the building is a wide open space that will feature poured concrete and pavers, with plenty of space for social distancing. Our Southwest Florida winter weather is beautiful and dry so we are already working with our event planner on an outside option. We certainly expect Florida State Park Director Eric Draper along with a sizable contingent from Tallahassee, as well as many of our local dignitaries. This is the first significant Florida Park System building in roughly 21 years, and LKSP is the second-most visited in the entire state, so this is a really big deal!”

A Feeling of Space

The second floor of the structure will feature a large community room with an adjacent preparation kitchen along with restrooms. Across the elevated open-air courtyard will be the Exhibit Hall that will include a “Fishing Shack” Ranger Station, bookstore, Donor’s Wall and primary exhibit areas. The State of Florida is paying for the $4-million Welcome & Discovery Center construction cost, with FOLKS raising an additional $1.2-million for its educational exhibits and furnishings. The exhibits will be built by the nationally-known Split Rock Studios from St. Paul, Minnesota. These will allow visitors to follow their own individual curiosity, with each serving as a stand-alone exhibit, so you will never lose the narrative no matter what order you view them. There will be ample space between displays to accommodate large crowds on rainy days as well as for mobility issues. Overhead clouds and seagulls suspended from the ceiling will give it a feeling of space.

“The Fishing Shack,” Deb noted, “comes from Fort Myers Beach resident Joe Orlandini, from preserved wood from local cottages for an ‘Old Florida’ feel. There is a large open-air deck outside the community room, overlooking the park, and the view will be even more breath-taking when the building opens, because park staff will trim the foliage to open up the waterfront. The community room has huge windows at the top of its walls that will allow in a tremendous amount of light, to bring the outdoors indoors, so it will be a magnificent place for a wedding and reception as well as every other type of occasion; if you want to book it for your 2021 event, now is the time to call LKSP. In addition to rental functions, LKSP will use the conference room for business meetings, educational programs and lectures, often in partnership with Florida Gulf Coast University, so it will truly serve people of all ages.”

The ground level will have a dry open-air classroom as well as an enclosed wet classroom complete with touch tanks to better understand and relate to sea life. “It will be a really great place to bring your kids and grandkids,” explained Deb, “to experience all different kinds of marine life. As for the bookstore, it will feature high-end items, like works from various local artists, FOLKS clothing, and all-natural products, though everything will have reasonable price points.”

Exhibits

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. 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 to provide perspective and orient people to where they and the park are. 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.

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. “Maritime Hammock” will be a forest canopy illustration, with pushbuttons to hear birds like a screech owl and warbler, to become familiar with what you will experience when you walk that area.

“Coastal Strand Environment” will not have an overhead canopy, as it is an open habitat. A major component will be the Gopher tortoise and its burrow – the community center of the neighborhood – where you lift doors to showcase some of the 350 animals that use those burrows as their homes as well, like cottontail rabbits, snakes and beetles. The “Mangrove Estuary” will shrink you down, so you can see this environment in a larger than life setting! Its huge mangrove roots 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 them.

The “Outdoor Adventures & Donor Panels” are the final things you see before you head out into the park, as these highlight the numerous outdoor adventures you can enjoy at Lovers Key State Park! Finally, the “Adult & Calf Manatee” sculpture will be the center’s showpiece, right at the main entrance. The manatees will be life-sized, with the adult 13 feet long and calf five feet, simulated with a waterline and seagrass. Deb predicted that the Manatee sculpture “will be the most photographed part of the entire Welcome & Discovery Center, and be on every social media site across the world!”

“Can’t Stop Smiling!”

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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.

If you would like to be a part of this newest chapter for LKSP, Deb is happy to speak with you about WDC marketing opportunities. “We still have two primary areas available for naming rights – the community room and manatee statue – as well as several smaller facilities like the classrooms. Sponsorships for the WDC are more important than ever, especially as we are all going through the coronavirus pandemic together. Not only are we rediscovering the importance of science, but as we all endure our various lockdowns, we now really comprehend the solace that nature provides, as I for one, really missed Lovers Key State Park when Florida had to close it. Email me at heydeb25@gmail.com and I will be happy to give you a personal tour, because once you see the Welcome & Discovery Center for yourself, you will be just excited as me, as I can’t stop smiling!”