It’s rare when community leaders on the local, state and federal levels of government come together to celebrate an event in Calhoun County.
That’s what happened, though, last week, when at the groundbreaking and ribbon cutting for the Choccolocco Arboretum and Nature Center. The crowd of 175 or so gathered under a new pavilion and a trail segment, both of which are open to visitors; walking the nature trail takes about 15 minutes.
A recent turn of events made the nature center possible after decades of dreaming by those involved in the Calhoun County Conservation District and the Choccolocco Creek Watershed Group.
In the past, the staff of both entities worked to do three things: Clear and clean the Choccolocco Creek and other waterways; oversee the building of dams throughout the county to prevent flooding; and educate people about the importance of protecting the area’s most vital assets, its water and land.
This latest project began when an individual recently sold 118 acres near Oxford’s Choccolocco Park, a popular green space and sports center of more than 300 acres located south of the Oxford Exchange.
“I looked at the property for the Choccolocco Creek Watershed group,” said Jennifer Yates, the District Administrative Coordinator, “and I tried to sell the board on the idea of creating a nature center. Currently, the county has the Choccolocco Park, with its manicured hiking and walking trails, but creating a more natural environment for tourism and educational purposes gives something to everyone.”
Yates has a history of working for related conservation entities, such as the Choccolocco Creek Watershed Group and the Alabama Land Trust, so she draws on her experience, knowledge and contacts to promote the idea of the nature center.
“It’s bigger than me,” she said in the new office of the Choccolocco Creek Watershed group on Main Street in Oxford; previously, the group operated out of a connected office in the USDA building in the Hillyer-Robinson Industrial Parkway in Golden Springs.
“We still need funds, but this project can be done in phases, if only we can see the big picture,” Yates said.
It’s big enough, Yates believes, that all of Calhoun County can be incorporated into the tourism and environmental movement. She hopes the new nature center can be considered the gateway off I-20 for visitors, far and wide, to come and visit the existing features throughout the county.
Alta Planning & Design, a company based in Portland, Ore., with offices in Atlanta and Huntsville, have created a master plan that takes advantage of the nature center’s features to teach about the ecology of the area.
According to an artist’s conception created for Alta, the nature center is to eventually include an arboretum, a botanical garden, a Native American village, two primitive campsites, a yurt-style campsite, two demonstration farms and a cattle area for educating students and farmers, an observation tower, disc golf and ropes courses and plenty of trails.
One visitor attending the groundbreaking was Sarah Ballard Pritchett of Ohatchee.
“I am a former biology teacher,” she said, “and what a great place to learn about nature and plants. As a master gardener, I feel like bringing groups here to learn about the native trees and wildflowers. I think this place, along with the bike trails, the Back Country Horsemen at McClellan, and our other natural features, will make visitors see what a great state and county we have here.”
Yates is convinced that improving the quality of life will attract the attention of large corporations that might be interested in locating in Calhoun or surrounding counties. She believes their company owners want to provide quality-of-life activities for their respective groups of employees.
In addition to bringing in tourism and companies, Yates has already met with the leaders of Gadsden State Community College and Jacksonville State University to suggest that they could add courses, and possibly two- or four-year degrees, that could be based at the nature center.
“This project is a tremendous economic opportunity that makes sense,” Yates said. “We received funds for the pavilion and the trail from a partnership with Eastman, Oxford City and the Coosa Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council. We hope to enlist other corporations to fund future projects.”