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Asheville's WNC Nature Center gets $50K boost

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5/10/2012 - Asheville's WNC Nature Center gets $50K boost
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times

 Balsam's barn digs, nicknamed "the skunk bunk," are about to get a home makeover.

 The lucky skunk eyed his new benefactors cautiously, but the humans in attendance at the major announcement Wednesday at the WNC Nature Center were all smiles as Festiva Hospitality Group officials handed over a $50,000 check to the Friends of the WNC Nature Center.

 Friends executive director Kimberly Brewster calls the check the largest-ever corporate donation to the nonprofit group that supports the city's wildlife park in East Asheville and its mission of connecting people with animals and plants of the Southern Appalachians.

 Based in Asheville, Festiva owns, markets and manages 24 hotels and resorts throughout the Southeast, Midwest, Northeast and Caribbean and employs about 100 people in Asheville alone.

 "This is huge. This is the stepping off point for the 2020 Vision," said Brewster, standing in the barn where the ceremony took place, among giant rabbits, sheep and other farm animals. "It will open up doors to reaching more Vision donations. It brings attention and puts a critical piece of it on display."

 The "critical piece" will include renovations to the historic red barn, which sits on the nature center's lower level, and will be the site of the new, handicap-accessible, interactive, integrative and enticing entrance.

 It will be one of the first projects in phase I of the Nature Center's "2020 Vision: Wild Asheville," a new strategic, master plan that kicked off late last year and includes expanding conservation efforts, adding animal species, exhibits and educational space, and improving guest amenities and accessibility.

 "Having this entrance will be the first thing people see. This will be their first experience with the nature center," she said.

 The current entrance to the more than 35-year-old nature center is a steep wall of stairs, inaccessible to wheelchairs, strollers or people with difficulty walking, said nature center director Chris Gentile.

 In addition to a new entrance, more animal exhibits will be added, in the manor of Balsam the Skunk's barn loft, made to look like a barn loft, on child's eye-level, matted with hay and straw, with peep holes. New animals will possibly include barn owls, rats and snakes, the first residents to greet visitors.

 "We want to show people what it would be like in a real barn," Gentile said.

 The large Festiva check will help to create those exhibits, and along with capital improvement funds from the city of Asheville, will go toward the entrance renovation.

 "It's a nice public-private partnership project," Gentile said of the funding sources. "This donation from Festiva gets us off on the right foot. We have a design team in place and will begin discussing design plans. The goal is to start construction next year."

 Visitors aren't waiting for sawdust to start flying, though. Even with the outdated facility, improvements have been happening, such as the highly popular otter exhibit that went in last year, Gentile said, and the public's interest in the nature center has never been higher.

 Last year drew a record 92,000 visitors to the nature center, Gentile said, and a recent "free Saturday" for Asheville city residents in April brought out 1,600 visitors. A total of 14,000 visited in April, which Gentile called "unbelievable" for a single month.

 The wildlife center offers a relatively low-cost outing for families and brings back memories for folks, including Festiva president and co-founder Butch Patrick, who has lived in Asheville 33 years, and spent many weekends at the nature center with his wife and two children.

 "This has been an integral part of our lives here," Patrick said, adding that it made sense for Festiva to become involved in the nature center's future expansion.

 "It's good for tourism, it's good for families -- we put 100,000 families on vacation every year -- and it's educational for everybody," Patrick said.

 "We are proud to support the expansion and improvement of the center's education and conservation efforts."

 The 2020 Vision plan, which should make the center "a changed place" by the year 2020, Gentile said, also calls for accessible restrooms, more parking spaces and a frog and turtle pond at the new entrance, a welcome building and snack shop.

 The master site plan will also include an accessible boardwalk for visitors to comfortably stroll in a loop around the entire 42-acre site, and the "Appalachian Journey," a new exhibit area with animals native to the Southern Appalachians such as black bears, deer, coyote, bobcats and gray and red wolves.

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