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On dry land

Nature center site moves to parking lot.

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The proposed site for a $5 million nature center to be built by the state Game and Fish Commission east of the Riverfest Amphitheatre has been moved out of a slackwater harbor south to dry land, to a parking lot now located behind the Museum Center. Filling the slackwater, which the city would have had to pay for as part of their proposal to Game and Fish, was estimated to cost $500,000, Little Rock Parks and Recreation project designer Mark Webre said. That estimate, and the need for an OK from the Corps of Engineers, made the city reconsider. Site preparation on the parking lot should cost only $25,000 or so, Webre estimated. The city board of directors and the Game and Fish Commission have both passed resolutions in favor of locating the nature center on the Little Rock site, the fourth site considered for the center over the past couple of years. Parks has created conceptual drawings of a long and narrow multi-story nature center flanked by a restaurant with outdoor dining on the west and an outdoor classroom on the east. Game and Fish Commission architects will get Parks Department input on the actual design of the building. The conceptual drawing would put the nature center's entrance across from the Museum of Discovery's ground floor atrium. To enter from the River Market, visitors will walk a 20-foot-wide path that will run behind the River Market, between the nature center and the Museum Center and on to connect with the Clinton Presidential Center east of Interstate 30. The path will be dotted with tree-surrounded sculpture gardens. Parks has secured funding for the path and oval sculpture gardens; private dollars will pay for five sculptures to be placed in the gardens. When it can afford it, Parks hopes to build a boardwalk that would loop around and into the center of the slackwater. A fishing pavilion, and perhaps a small amphitheater, would be built at the boardwalk's end in the center of the slough. Game and Fish may help with the funding for the boardwalk and the restoration of the slackwater to a more natural wetland, Webre said. The fishing theme could be cast in a big way if the nature center includes exhibits from the Pro Bass Hall of Fame, a Hot Springs non-profit that's been invited to sit down with Game and Fish architects when they're ready to proceed with drawings. The Hall of Fame, which at the advice of a consultant dropped its plan to build a stand-alone $25 million facility to honor its inductees and the fishing industry, has been looking to share space in Little Rock. It's been in talks also with Belz-Burrow, developers who hope to build a shopping center anchored by Bass Pro Shops in North Little Rock. Until Little Rock lured the center to its riverfront, Game and Fish was considering building its nature center near Bass Pro at the Shoppes at North Hills. It was the third site considered; North Little Rock's riverfront and Otter Creek were in the running earlier. "We're all kind of like three ducks circling and trying to decide which pond we want to land on," Hall of Fame president Bill Fletcher said. The 15,000-square-foot nature center will be one of four built with Game and Fish's share of the 1/8-cent conservation sales tax enacted in the mid-1990s. The first opened in Pine Bluff; Jonesboro's will open next. A third will be built in Fort Smith.

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