20 years after Congress promised new Everglades Park center, plans being made

Greg Kahn/Staff 
 A park ranger talks about burmese pythons while holding the skin of one during a talk at The Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades National Park in Everglades City on Jan. 7, 2012. The National Park Service has announced that it is taking a second look at a long-awaited new visitor center for Everglades National Park in Everglades City, which attracts more than 100,000 visitor every year. A public hearing on the issue is set for Jan. 19.

Photo by GREG KAHN, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Greg Kahn/Staff A park ranger talks about burmese pythons while holding the skin of one during a talk at The Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades National Park in Everglades City on Jan. 7, 2012. The National Park Service has announced that it is taking a second look at a long-awaited new visitor center for Everglades National Park in Everglades City, which attracts more than 100,000 visitor every year. A public hearing on the issue is set for Jan. 19.

— More than 100,000 adventure-seekers use Everglades City as their gateway to Everglades National Park every year.

The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is the put-in spot for canoers and kayakers paddling the park's Wilderness Waterway and the place to hop on a tour boat to explore the park's unique coastal vistas.

Federal budget cuts and sea level rise have the National Park Service rethinking its plans to redevelop the popular visitor center in Everglades City, some 20 years after Congress promised to build a new one and name it for Everglades champion Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Project manager Fred Herling said the visitor center "will not go away" but planners are looking at scaling back improvements and maybe moving some of the visitor center services to other spots in and around Everglades City.

"We're kind of going into it with a pretty open slate," Herling said.

The existing visitor center was built in 1966 and has undergone minimal change since then. The Park Service considers the buildings obsolete and even structurally unsound.

Visitor center functions are different these days, with visitors getting much of the information they need to plan a trip to a national park on the Web or using smartphone applications, Herling said.

In 1989, Congress directed the Interior Department to speed up construction of a new visitor center, but it has yet to be funded.

In 1989, Congress directed the Interior Department to speed up construction of a new visitor center, but it has yet to be funded.

Redevelopment at Everglades City and at the park's Flamingo entrance, near Homestead, once was estimated to cost $80 million to $100 million, Herling said.

"Those number don't make sense anymore," he said, adding that the Park Service "hasn't gotten to the money part" for any scaled-back plans.

While the government needs to watch its budgets in tight fiscal times, the new visitor center should provide at least the same quantity of visitor services while improving quality, National Parks Conservation Association regional director John Adornato said.

"It doesn't need to be the Taj Mahal," he said.

The Park Service doesn't plan to rebuild hotel-like accommodations destroyed by hurricanes at its Flamingo visitor center near Homestead. The Conservation Association opposes that decision.

In Everglades City, planners are considering ways to provide visitor services given the site's vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding. That might mean hurricane-proofing structures or using units that could be moved out of harm's way, Herling said.

Under one alternative, the Park Service would require the next boat tour concession to have its own location rather than being located at the park's visitor center. The current concession contract runs out in 2018.

Longtime Everglades City mayor and concession operator Sammy Hamilton couldn't be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.

Herling said spreading the Park Service's presence to other parts of Everglades City would spread visitors to other parts of the town and help its tourism economy.

Changing the spot the boat tour business holds in the park's host community could be a tough sell for some locals, though.

"I don't see what's wrong with where it's at now," Everglades Chamber of Commerce President Gene Wooten said. "I just think it's already in a good spot."

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