By Gary Gray
Unlike other Northeast Tennessee counties, Washington County has neither a community-based nature center nor state park to showcase, preserve and protect its vast natural resources.
Johnson City Parks and Recreation Nature Program Coordinator Connie Deegan and Recreation Services Manager Sam Miller planted that proverbial seed last week during a presentation to Parks and Recreation Advisory Board members. The two recommended the city’s 28.7-acre Jacob’s Nature Park at Sinking Creek as a potential site.
“That place would win awards just by opening its doors,” Deegan told The News & Neighbor before the meeting.
The proposal places the center near the back of the park on the edge of a floodplain, and includes an exhibit hall, aquarium, three large classrooms, a lounge, offices, more than 30 new parking spaces and a drop off and pick up area for buses. The plan also incorporates a new main entrance to the park at the center, and retains the current entrance.
“Of all the sites in our system, we believe this is our most diverse park,” Miller told board members. “This rough draft and proposal is all we have for you today, but there is interest in both the community and department right now. We just don’t have a timeline.”
The center would facilitate sustainable tourism and recreation, and support local interest in fulfilling Northeast Tennessee Economic Development Partnership initiatives, according to Deegan. The location also could be used to create a “trail connection corridor,” hooking into the Tweetsie Trail, which is just blocks away, and the 25-mile State of Franklin loop trail, establishing a non-motorized pathway to nearly all neighborhoods in the city.
“I would love to learn more about this project, and I think it’s an idea worth exploring,” Kayla Carter, NeTREP outdoor development manager, said when told of the proposal. “It would be another great way to bring the outdoor recreation community in our region together. If my support is requested, I will be there to help in any way I’m able.”
Benefits include adding hands-on, community-based learning experiences, as well as a place to provide structured programs and places for people to interact with nature, Deegan said.
“Nature centers are moving in a different direction, and we need to be able to open the doors all day,” she said. “Even if a child participates in environmental education activities in school, it doesn’t always include a field-based experience. For children to develop an environmental ethic, they need opportunities to form an ongoing connection with the natural world, and nature centers provide this.”
Deegan provided a handout detailing more than 50 programming possibilities, which include various resources for teachers such as field trips, themed events, symposiums and an outdoor recreation exposition. She also pointed to potential partners, including school systems, East Tennessee State University and other local colleges and universities, the U.S. Forest Service, scouting and faith-based groups and others.
A Community Resource Project has been placed within Johnson City Commissioners’ $15 million capital improvement plan, but there currently is no solid indication of how that will be directed. Additional funding could come from the establishment of “Friends of Johnson City Public Lands,” with a nonprofit fundraising status, programming fees and charges, donations and strategic partnerships with businesses.
Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl also mentioned there is a possibility of grant funding through the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
“I will say we are the only city in the area without a nature center,” Stahl said.