One of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s premier facilities in the Panhandle is about to become even more impressive. Construction has officially begun on an addition to the Wildcat Hills Nature Center south of Gering.
The $2.375 million expansion will add 8,720 square feet to the building, which serves as headquarters for the Commission’s educational programs in the region and the 700-acre Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area. The new construction will more than double the size of the existing 5,300-square-foot structure.
The expansion will bring exhibit space and a large multipurpose room, both of which are sure to be a popular venue for many events and educational activities. In addition to providing a more adequate area for the array of nature education programs at the center, groups will be allowed to rent the facility for a variety of events such as meetings, conferences and weddings.
An upper level will be added to the building, featuring an observation deck for visitors to fully enjoy the spectacular view of the rugged evergreen-studded park and the North Platte Valley below. The building will also gain workshop space and storage.
The nature center, just off Nebraska Highway 71 on the ridge of the Wildcat Hills, already attracts about 25,000 visitors a year. Officials say the expansion and the construction of the shooting complex to the south of the center are sure to greatly boost those numbers.
Jim Swenson, parks department administrator for the Commission, said the expansion will fill a need and complement other similar facilities.
“We are excited to begin this project, and thankful we have the support of generous partners that make this opportunity possible,” Swenson said. “The Wildcat Hills area is a very scenic and unique region that offers a great story to share with our park visitors. The enhanced nature center will allow for tremendous programming and exhibits, and it will complement other great interpretive facilities we have at locations such as Ponca State Park, Lake McConaughy and other parks. The added benefit of the multi-use design will allow for special events and conferences that will bring new visitors to the park and the region.”
The Commission is developing content for the exhibit space, highlighting the region’s rich wildlife and plant resources, including displays that interpret the regions unique geology and paleontological history. Unique fossils discovered in the area have been in storage for decades and can now be incorporated into nature center displays.
The new displays will complement the center’s existing trove of educational resource material and will entice guests to experience the park’s extensive trail system. Mounted bird and mammal displays, an outdoor bird viewing area, and an offering of some live amphibians and reptiles, entertain the many school groups and other visitors each year.
The expansion is largely made possible with project-specific capital development funds appropriated to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission along with matching partner funds provided from donations.
Roger Kuhn, the Commission’s assistant director for development, said the project would not be possible without generous supporters who were willing to make significant contributions. More than $1.1 million, nearly half of the project costs, came from donors that include the Oregon Trail Community Foundation, Platter River Basin Environments Inc., Scotts Bluff County Tourism, Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation, Robert B. Daugherty Foundation, Peter Kiewit Foundation and numerous others.
The project was designed by Studio 120 Architecture, a subsidiary of Baker & Associates. Construction is being carried out by Paul Reed Construction with a goal for completion of late summer or early fall 2016.
Paul Reed Construction also has been building the shooting complex south of the center since this spring. With a projected spring 2016 opening, it will feature a range to sight in high-power rifles, as well as stations for target shooting with .22 caliber rifles and archery equipment. Also included will be a 5-stand shotgun range and a building that houses an indoor air rifle range.