New GDS visitors’ center planned

Published 6:59 pm Thursday, November 26, 2009

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service moved a step closer to a real visitors’ center serving the Great Dismal Swamp recently with the U.S. Senate’s approval of funds intended to help with the purchase of necessary land.

Senators approved a half-million-dollar appropriation designated for land acquisition as part of the 2010 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.

Though the money will not be sufficient to allow the purchase of the necessary land, Refuge Manager Chris Lowie said Wednesday, it will be enough to get the process started, funding appraisals and preliminary work to buy the 50-acre Chesapeake property that the agency has identified for the new visitors’ center.

Lowie said the move from the agency’s current location on Desert Road in Suffolk to an area near the Route 17 corridor in Chesapeake is part of the long-term plan for the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. One of the goals of that plan is to increase the accessibility of the park to residents of Hampton Roads.

By moving the visitors’ facility, he said, officials expect to increase from about 60,000 visitors a year to about 600,000 a year.

“We’re a diamond in the rough,” he said, acknowledging that even in Suffolk, he has found that only about half the folks he speaks to know about all the recreational opportunities that the Dismal Swamp offers.

“The people that know it love it,” he added.

The new facility will be designed to be a draw for visitors, with exhibits, a “mini-museum kind of thing,” space for orientations by refuge officials and even a large conference room for educational offerings, Lowie said. None of those opportunities is available inside the current Suffolk facility.

The new facility’s location on the Chesapeake side of the swamp would allow refuge officials to take advantage of partnerships with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Nature Conservancy, both of which own adjacent property they are trying to protect, he said.

And the experience of folks visiting the Dismal Swamp from the Suffolk side also would improve or at least remain unchanged, he said.

“Most of our public access points are here in Suffolk,” Lowie explained. “The access to Lake Drummond is here in Suffolk. We have no plans to reduce any of our visitor services amenities here in Suffolk.”

In fact, he said, the long-range plan calls for transforming the existing Desert Road facility into an expanded “visitors’ services station” offering bicycle and canoe rentals and other concessions.

Much of the refuge’s staff also would remain in Suffolk, Lowie said.

The Senate appropriation, he stressed, is just an early step in the whole process. Once the agency gets enough money to buy the property, officials will turn their attention to raising the $9 million or so estimated to be needed to build the new visitors’ center.

“It’s just business as usual until then,” he said.