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    Group tries to fund vision for center

    A group with big dreams for a Brooker Creek Preserve center is raising $2.5-million to pay for technologically savvy exhibits.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 1, 2003

    EAST LAKE -- One of North Pinellas' biggest private fundraising efforts in years is about to get under way.

    With construction continuing on the new Environmental Education Center at the Brooker Creek Preserve, the nonprofit foundation organized to support the preserve will try to raise $2.5-million to help pay for the center's high-tech exhibits, as well as amenities such as a boardwalk, observation tower and gazebos.

    The Friends of the Brooker Creek Preserve, which has about 230 members, hopes to raise the money during the next year, said past president Barbara Hoffman, who is leading the effort.

    "To me, it's this huge educational effort based on environmental issues, and I think there's nothing more important," Hoffman said Friday.

    By the standards of similar efforts in North Pinellas, it is an ambitious goal. Supporters of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art originally hoped to build a $2-million endowment. One year after the museum opened, they have raised $700,000. Similarly, boosters have spent nearly four years raising the $2.5-million needed to build a new YMCA in Palm Harbor. Construction is expected to begin in the early fall.

    Friends chairman Tom Pickard said he's "well aware of the task ahead of us," but expects the education center "will give folks something really unique."

    "I'm very excited about the whole thing," Pickard said.

    At the 8,500-acre preserve, the three-building, $9-million education center is scheduled to open in November. It will consist of a classroom building, an auditorium and a museum building that will house the exhibits and gift shop.

    The county is paying more than $400,000 to design the exhibits and is applying for grants that could help pay for the exhibits, Hoffman said. Officials at the preserve did not return calls Friday, but Pinellas environmental lands division administrator Craig Huegel has told the friends that the preserve is working with the county utilities department and the Southwest Florida Water Management District to develop partnerships for the exhibits.

    Academy Studios, a Novato, Calif., company that specializes in creating museum exhibits, is working on the design and schematics.

    Although still in development, the exhibits are expected to focus on several overarching themes: water, soil and ecosystems of the preserve. The soil exhibit, for example, could include information not just on what's 10 feet underground, but also hundreds of feet below ground, Hoffman said.

    It could give visitors a look inside a gopher tortoise's burrow and explain what hikers wouldn't necessarily see on a walk in the woods.

    One exhibit also is planned to be an "object theater" designed like the interior of an old Florida shack. During a 6- to 8-minute video presentation, actors in three-dimensional projection would enter the room, talk about living in Florida during its pioneer days or at other times and then point to props that would light up or function as they were originally used.

    The exhibits are expected to cost about $2-million to make and install. The friends also want to raise as much as $500,000 more to pay for amenities such as a boardwalk, observation tower and three gazebos.

    The 17,600-square-foot education center has been designed in an Old Florida style, with tin roofs and siding that looks like the clapboards used on Florida homes in the 1800s and early 1900s.

    Huge windows and wood beams will be placed to give visitors a sense of actually being in the preserve while in the exhibit hall, classrooms or multipurpose building, which will have meeting space and dining facilities. The center also will have offices for the preserve's staff.

    To learn more

    Call the Friends of the Brooker Creek Preserve at (727) 787-8159 or check online at

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