Audubon Arkansas planned to open its first nature center in Arkansas in 2005, but they finally will break ground this month for the 425-acre Little Rock Nature Center that includes Gillam Park and Granite Mountain, named by The Nature Conservancy as the most ecologically significant area in Pulaski County. The land contains rare exposed igneous rock called nepheline syenite; a rare, endangered plant, the small-headed pipewort; and a stand of old white oak trees that borders the Fourche Creek bottoms wetland. It will be managed as grassland and returned to natural habitat.
The Little Rock Audubon Center will adapt and reuse a former community center as a L.E.E.D. certified visitors' center. It will play a critical educational role in helping school children and their parents understand and enjoy their "natural home" through well-guided, out-of-doors learning experiences, employing a staff of five or more teacher/naturalists who will lead residents and students in hands-on, exploratory activities. The 2,000 acres eventually available for use by the Nature Center offer a vast and richly diverse "lab" for young people to learn about conservation, restoration, wildlife and plants. Trails designed for a variety of learning experiences will surround the Center.
It is an excellent example of a public-private partnership. The City of Little Rock owns the property, and Audubon has a 99-year lease. Audubon Arkansas will raise $1.1 million in private funds for the project, and the city will contribute $50,000 and assign $148,500 in federal Housing and Urban Development funds for the project.
Audubon Arkansas had proposed a similar partnership in 2003 with the City of Fayetteville to construct and operate a Nature Center on the Wilson Spring property owned by the City. A Task Force that included the late John Lewis recommended the partnership, and the City Council unanimously approved it. Then Mayor Dan Coody scuttled the plan and negotiated a deal to sell the property to a Benton County developer; the City Council went along 5-2. Although there was talk about a smaller Audubon Nature Center on the remaining wetlands unsuitable for development, nothing has come of it in the five years since the deal.