Gulf Coast Eco Center breaks ground

By Melanie LeCroy / melanie@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 11/3/21

Years of dreaming, planning and patience culminated with the unique groundbreaking for the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability (Gulf Coast Eco Center) Oct. 27. Gulf Shores City School …

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Gulf Coast Eco Center breaks ground

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Years of dreaming, planning and patience culminated with the unique groundbreaking for the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability (Gulf Coast Eco Center) Oct. 27. Gulf Shores City School students joined members of the community and special guest Jean-Michele Cousteau for the ceremony.

After Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft, Cousteau and school administrators spoke, the event moved into the woods adjacent to Gulf Shores High School’s practice field. There, students, teachers and members of the Eco Center team collected reindeer moss, dug up and potted small pine trees and native plants such as false rosemary, rather than simply remove the native plants with shovels.

Over the coming weeks city crews will remove larger trees and plants from the building site before work begins. The plants will be cared for and replanted once the project is complete.

The Gulf Coast Eco Center is a nonprofit organization based in Gulf Shores with the mission to promote sustainable tourism, raise environmental awareness and encourage the stewardship of the Gulf Coast’s natural resources.

The Gulf Coast Eco Center has partnered with the City of Gulf Shores, Gulf Shores City Schools and Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment to develop an Eco Center funded through $9.7 million in RESTORE Act funds. The Eco Center will be located adjacent to Gulf Shores City Schools and Gulf State Park and offer a range of camps, classes and recreational activities for school groups, residents and visitors.

The Gulf Coast Eco Center campus has been designed to preserve the uniqueness of the site using local materials. The campus includes a long leaf pine savannah, 20 acres of wetlands and sand pine and oak forests. Seven buildings will be dotted throughout the campus and include:

  • Welcome Hub with classroom and staff offices.
  • Gathering Hub will offer a large space for hosting events.
  • Maker Hub for crafts and project-based learning.
  • Farm Hub for hands on work growing food, native plants and composting.
  • Wetlands Hub to teach wetlands ecology.
  • Mobility Hub will house bikes for riding on trails and a space to work on the bikes.

Each speaker stressed the idea of protecting the local environment for future decision makers - children.

“We have to protect our world, or it will disappear by our own hand. We have seen that throughout our country where there have been environmental disasters and lack of focus on protecting the things that are important to us. These youngsters want to grow up and enjoy the same wonderful things we have been able to enjoy in this community,” Craft said.

Gulf Shores City Schools Superintendent Dr. Matt Akin and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Harrison stressed how the Eco Center’s campus will be integrated into the curriculum. Over the past two years, students have enjoyed classrooms beyond the four walls. Students regularly venture into Gulf State Park, the beach, the dune and lagoon to learn and those opportunities will expand once the Eco Center is complete.

“This facility is being built for you so that you can continue the learning that is started in the classroom and you can continue that outdoors,” Harrison said to the students in attendance. “When this facility is built you will have the opportunity to garden, compost, take nature walks, learn about the birds, plants and animals that make up this beautiful environment that we are so fortunate to live in. I believe that if you are in nature learning and engaged in science every day you will build a relationship with the environment that will carry you forward the rest of your life. The lessons you learn today you will pass on to future generations. This environment is important, and we do not want to take it for granted and we need to care for it every day,” Harrison said.

Craft said he envisions students across Baldwin County, Alabama and the nation visiting the Gulf Coast Eco Center.

“We have got a NASA Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville and I want us to have a comparable position, an ocean center for lack of better term. If we could do that in Alabama and I think we can, this is how you start that. You have something like that here in Gulf Shores matching the Space Center, it changes the way people look at Alabama. As a native Alabamian that is important to me,” Craft said.

The Gulf Coast Eco Center has developed a partnership with filmmaker and ocean advocate Cousteau and his Ocean Futures Society to develop educational curriculum. Gulf Shores is the newest outpost for Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program. Other outposts include Hawaii, California, the Caribbean, Maldives and Mexico.

Cousteau and his team spent the week in Gulf Shores meeting with city leaders, exploring the local area and meeting students. He said he is excited because everything he and his father attempted to do is happening.

“What is happening is the future decision makers are making much better decisions already. Thanks to what I call the communication revolution, we are connected to each other. Now we can get information which I could not get when I was their age,” Cousteau continued. “It means that today we are in a position to do much better than we used to and I am more recharged with hope than I have ever been. Places like this are special because they are connected at the same time to the ocean, land, saltwater, freshwater, animals, plants and forest. If you protect the ocean, you protect yourself.”

The project will go out to bid in the upcoming months, but the city will begin work on the road access and groundwork. City officials expect the project to start at the beginning of 2022 with hopes it will be complete sometimes in 2023.

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