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Supporters Hope Alabama's Gulf Coast Eco Center Will Make Area a Research Hub

Wed November 03, 2021 - Southeast Edition
CEG


Jean-Michele Cousteau toured the site for the Gulf Coast Eco Center with students during the ground saving event. Students collects reindeer moss and other native plants that will be cared for until being replanted after construction is complete. (Melanie LeCroy/Gulf Coast Media photo)
Jean-Michele Cousteau toured the site for the Gulf Coast Eco Center with students during the ground saving event. Students collects reindeer moss and other native plants that will be cared for until being replanted after construction is complete. (Melanie LeCroy/Gulf Coast Media photo)
Jean-Michele Cousteau toured the site for the Gulf Coast Eco Center with students during the ground saving event. Students collects reindeer moss and other native plants that will be cared for until being replanted after construction is complete. (Melanie LeCroy/Gulf Coast Media photo)
The Gulf Coast Eco Center campus has been designed to preserve the uniqueness of the site using local materials and will be located adjacent to Gulf Shores City Schools and Gulf State Park. It will offer a range of camps, classes and recreational activities for school groups, residents and visitors.

Years of dreaming, planning and patience finally came together Oct. 27 with a unique groundbreaking for the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability (Gulf Coast Eco Center) in Gulf Shores, Ala.

Local students joined members of the community and special guest Jean-Michele Cousteau, son of the late oceanographer and underwater filmmaker Jacque Cousteau, for the ceremony. The younger Cousteau is himself a world-renowned filmmaker and ocean advocate through his Ocean Futures Society.

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 coastline's natural resources.

The nonprofit has partnered with the city of Gulf Shores, Gulf Shores City Schools and Cousteau's Ambassadors of the Environment to develop an Eco Center funded through $9.7 million in RESTORE Act funds. It 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 ecological campus has been designed to preserve the unique site and its natural features, which includes a long leaf pine savannah, 20 acres of wetlands and sand pine and oak forests. The build site is contiguous with 100 acres of mostly wetlands owned by the city

Gulf Coast Media reported that seven buildings (or hubs) will be dotted throughout the complex, and will include:

  • A welcome hub with classroom and staff offices.
  • A Gathering hub that will offer a large space for hosting events.
  • A Maker hub for crafts and project-based learning.
  • A Farm hub for hands on work growing food, native plants and composting.
  • A Wetlands hub to teach wetlands ecology.
  • A Mobility hub that will house bicycles for riding on trails and a space to work on the bikes.
Project for Today's Children, Tomorrow's Leaders

After Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft, Cousteau and school administrators spoke at the groundbreaking, 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.

According to Gulf Coast Media, city crews will soon begin removing larger trees and plants from the building site before construction of the center begins. The plants will be cared for and replanted once the project is complete.

An effort has been made over the last two years to allow Gulf Shores City School students to enjoy classroom time outside with regular trips 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," noted Stephanie Harrison, assistant superintendent of the school system in her remarks to the students in attendance at the groundbreaking.

"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," she continued. "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."

Craft echoed Harrison's comments when he stressed the idea of protecting the local environment for today's children — the decision-makers of tomorrow.

"We have to protect our world, or it will disappear by our own hand," he said. "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."

Cousteau in League with Eco Center

The Gulf Coast Eco Center developed a partnership with Cousteau to develop its educational curriculum. In fact, Gulf Shores is the newest outpost for Cousteau's Ambassadors of the Environment program. Other stations can be found in Hawaii, California, the Caribbean, the Maldives and Mexico.

Cousteau and his team spent a week in Gulf Shores meeting with city leaders, exploring the local area and engaging with students, the local news source reported. He said he is excited to see that the work he and his father have long championed is resonating with young people.

"What is happening is the future decision makers are making much better decisions already," he explained. "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. 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."

Construction Set for Early 2022

The Gulf Coast Eco Center project will go out to bid in the upcoming months, but the city is now beginning work on the road access and groundwork. City officials expect construction to start at the beginning of 2022 with hopes it will be complete sometime in 2023.

The City of Gulf Shores' total RESTORE Act funding, generated from a settlement with BP following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, is $41.8 million, of which $4.4 million is being used to extend the nearby Fort Morgan Trail, $5.9 million for the Little Lagoon Restoration project, and $21.7 million for local traffic capacity improvements, including Canal Road.

The Gulf Coast Eco Center campus has been designed to preserve the uniqueness of the site using local materials and will be located adjacent to Gulf Shores City Schools and Gulf State Park. It will offer a range of camps, classes and recreational activities for school groups, residents and visitors.




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