September 2 is an auspicious date for Grandfather Mountain.
Sixty-seven years ago, it marked the opening of the world-famous Mile High Swinging Bridge.
In 2019, it saw the nonprofit nature park break ground on its most ambitious project since — the Conservation Campus.
Here, guests will experience the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery, featuring all new state-of-the-art museum exhibits (designed by PGAV Destinations of St. Louis, Missouri), as well as outdoor learning spaces, an amphitheater and a botanical garden.
“We’re working to share the wonders of Grandfather Mountain in ways that are broader and deeper than ever before,” said Jesse Pope, president and executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Linville, N.C., nature park.
Designed by Boone-based Coffey Architecture, the Wilson Center — named for benefactors Bob and Susan Wilson — will nearly double the size of the park’s current Nature Museum and feature 10,000 square feet of new education space, three classrooms for smaller groups and increased capacity for larger groups and restoration of the ADA-accessible auditorium.
Meanwhile, outside the center, guests will enjoy new outdoor learning spaces, including an amphitheater with terraced seating and a pavilion. New office space will help park educators and animal habitats staff prepare and support new, enhanced educational programs, while larger, more modern food service facilities will allow for catering and serving educational groups, as well as expanded capacity for hosting conferences, seminars, receptions and community events.
“Whether it’s schoolchildren coming for a field trip or conservation experts visiting together to share new knowledge, guests will gain an even greater appreciation of nature and become even more passionate about protecting and preserving it,” Pope said.
The project is estimated to be completed between 18 and 24 months, with the park remaining open for the duration.
The groundbreaking ceremony saw a gathering of park supporters, elected officials, benefactors, staff, volunteers and more, including Gordon Warburton, president of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation board of directors.
Warburton noted that the park and its conservation efforts stand firmly on the foundation of park founder Hugh Morton’s vision for the mountain.
“Mr. Morton was a true conservationist, and he worked tirelessly out of his love for this mountain, and love for this mountain is something that we all share here,” he said. “Grandfather Mountain has always been a source of inspiration and a place where people come and discover the beauty and splendor of nature, and we’re taking that a step further here with this project.”
The project comes with a price tag of $5.5 million, of which $4.7 million has already been raised through the Fulfilling Promises Capital Campaign.
Major donations come courtesy of Bob and Susan Wilson, Paul and Susie O’Connell, Luther H. Hodges Jr., David and Cathy Thompson, Ginny Burton, Monroe and Becky Cobey, the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, Joseph and Terry Williams, the William Rose Family, the Dickson Foundation, Frank and Mary Cain Driscoll, Connie and John McLendon, and Kelly and Meredith Graves.
“I’m fortunate in that the Lord gave me great parents that directed me and helped me acquire the ability to pay something back to him, and that’s the way we look at,” Bob Wilson said. “We’re giving this. It’s something for this community. Grandfather Mountain is a unique mountain, a unique ecological center … and this is about taking our young kids and letting them learn about it. It’s something that I think we need in our country more now than … ever.”
Phillip Barrier, Avery County manager, who also attended the groundbreaking, agrees.
“It (the conservation campus) is going to benefit the children of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and beyond,” he said. “This is great. It’s about Avery County being on the map once again, and (Bob Wilson) is right — nature is something people need to get back to and teach their children about, because generations to come need to protect and take care of our beautiful mountains.”
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx attended the ceremony and echoed Wilson’s and Barrier’s comments on the importance of Grandfather’s educational mission.
“The opportunities are limitless in terms of the education value here,” Foxx said. “Having grown up in the mountains and making the decision long ago to live here the rest of my life, I am so pleased to see a facility like this is going to be available to people from all over the world. It’s fabulous, and I commend everybody involved for putting it together.”
One such person is Hunter Coffey, architect and owner of Coffey Architecture. During the ceremony, he called the task “a personal and professional privilege.”
“This nature center is precisely the sort of meaningful project with which I’d hoped to become involved,” he said. “Visitors centers, nature centers are special places, which offer the designer specific challenges and opportunities. They’re meant to enhance one’s understanding and experience of a place, while, at the same time, not upsetting that place by being located in it. Achieving this goal can be like threading a needle, but it’s a challenge we’ve embraced.”
To learn more about the Conservation Campus, the Fulfilling Promises campaign and how to help, visit www.grandfather.com/fulfillingpromises.
The not-for-profit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call 800-468-7325, or plan a trip at www.grandfather.com.