By DOTTY NIST
The renewal of a partnership agreement that had provided for the opening of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center to the public has been declined by the center.
Located east of Freeport near Bruce, the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center is a $12 million privately-owned environmental education facility located on a greenway of approximately 50,000 acres, Nokuse Plantation. The center is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It was created by Walton County conservationist M.C. Davis primarily to serve elementary and middle school students and their teachers by providing a hands-on learning experience, with a focus on Walton County’s natural diversity. The center has been open since 2009 and has reported visits by more than 20,000 students.
Prior to June 2011, the center was open to the public only a few times a year on special occasions. At that time, a partnership between the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) and the center enabled the facility to be opened to the general public, including tourists, during specific days and hours. The partnership was sought by the TDC in connection with the goal of expanding local ecotourism.
The agreement provided for a $119,500 annual payment to the center by the TDC to offset increased costs associated with opening to the public. That amount was funded through the new product development “cent” of the tourist bed tax.
Weekly Saturday programs focusing on nature and the environment were presented at the center in conjunction with the agreement.
For the period between June 2011 and Dec. 2012, the center reported visits by approximately 6,000 members of the public, 3.846 of those from outside of the area, during the hours the facility was open to the public through the agreement.
The term of the current agreement runs through May. On Feb. 19, the TDC voted unanimously in favor of renewal. Approval of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) was required, and was granted in a 4-1 vote. This was after much discussion at the Feb. 26 BCC meeting and a failed motion by District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows to reduce the yearly payment to the center down to $60,000. Citizens speaking at the meeting criticized the agreement and the amount of the expenditure in relation to the number of tourist visitors reported.
In a March 14 letter, E.O Wilson Biophilia Center Director Christy Scally notified the commissioners and the TDC that the center “must respectfully decline” renewal of the agreement, citing budget restraints and increased demands on the center.
Scally thanked the commissioners and the TDC for their support through the agreement and stated that their willingness to renew it was “greatly appreciated.”
Contacted on March 15, Scally said the decision not to renew the contract would result in the time the center would be open to the public being cut greatly—but that there was discussion of holding several public events there during the year, possibly fund raisers. The Saturday program series was part of the partnership agreement with the TDC and is set to end when the agreement runs out at the end of May.
Scally said the public hours had resulted in Biophilia Center staff members working overtime and that previously there had been plans to hire additional personnel. However, due to the decision, that hiring will not take place.
New projects are still in the works for the center, among them a petting zoo, a joint effort with Alaqua Animal Refuge.
There had been a submission to the TDC by the center for consideration of a partnership opportunity in connection with a newly-acquired NOAA “Science on a Sphere,” a system that displays planetary data on six foot-diameter sphere to help people understand environmental processes. The closest of these devices are said to be in Orlando and Birmingham, and they have been a tourism draw in other areas. However, along with the decision to end the agreement, the center has withdrawn the partnership possibility. Scally said the sphere would be worked into the center’s educational programs.
She said demand for those educational programs continues to grow in the six school districts served. However, budget cuts have made it difficult for some of the schools to pay for transportation of students to and from the center. Scally said transportation, on an in-kind basis, is the only payment required from the schools to participate in the center’s programs.
Fortunately, in many cases parent-teacher organizations have been able to raise funds for these transportation costs, she noted.
“I love my job. I hope we are able to provide an awesome experience for the community at large,” Scally commented.
Contacted on March 18, Walton County District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander said she had received the Biophilia Center’s letter. “I know first hand going to the Biophilia Center with my grandchildren what a wonderful experience it is and what quality family time,” Comander commented. “It is certainly their decision, but I hope they will continue to reach out to visitors and help them learn about Walton County’s many wonders,” she added.