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Tom Ridge Environmental Center: Innovative, Eco-Friendly

Wed January 24, 2007 - Northeast Edition
Jennifer Rupp

The Tom Ridge Environmental Center (TREC) celebrated its grand opening in 2006 in Erie, Pa. The 65,000-sq.-ft. center serves as an education, research and tourist hub for the region.

The purpose of the center is to create a comprehensive year-round facility at the entrance to Presque Isle State Park, thus becoming a vital economic, education, research and tourism spot for the northwest region. It also is the establishment of an urban greenway that improves safety for walkers, hikers, and bikers from the Pennsylvania Seaway Trail to the park entrance.

“This one-of-a-kind center offers a unique blend of education and research facility, tourist destination and one-stop-shop for Presque Isle Sate Park administration,” Gov. Ed Rendell said.

“Presque Isle is one of our most spectacular and visited parks in the state, and this center will serve as its gateway, connecting the public —residents, school children, researchers, visitors — to nature in exciting and different ways.”

The 12.11-acre building-site — formerly the Peninsula Drive-In Theater known as the Stern property — is situated on the bluff overlooking Lake Erie. It is halfway between West 6th Street and the entrance to the Park traveling north along Peninsula Drive. The land parcel was purchased in 2001 for $2.6 million.

The idea for this project was first conceived in 1956 when the Park and Harbor Commission recommended land acquisition for a “visitor’s center.” In 1957, it was recommended in the Master Development Plan that a center be constructed. In 1993 and 1998, the Park Resource Management Plan endorsed by the Presque Isle Advisory Committee recommended acquisition of the greenway for future land and center development.

Funds were appropriated in the 1995 capital budget for purchase of property and construction of a center. On Oct. 4, 2001, $25 million was released for the Center’s construction and purchase of the Stern property. Philadelphia-based design firm of Wallace, Roberts, and Todd, was selected as the project’s design consultants and Christopher Chadbourne and Associates of Boston, Mass. were chosen as the exhibit design firm.

The center was built in phases. Construction began in August 2002. The Phase 1 contract for $654,000 included the site work and excavation under prime contractor Perry Construction of Erie, Pa. Waterford Sand and Gravel of Waterford, Pa., was subcontracted for excavation, along with contractor Carl Bloom, and Gillette Masonry of McKean, Pa., completed all of the concrete block and brick work.

Bloom used specialized shoring equipment for digging and supporting the walls during the excavation of the theater. He moved around 6,000 yds. (5,486 m) of dirt with his equipment, including a Komatsu 120 excavator, a John Deere 644 front-end loader and a Komatsu D38 bulldozer. The depth measured 32 ft. (9.7 m) to the bottom of the footer.

In Phase 2, Amthor Steel of Erie, Pa. completed the structural steel work under a $745,850 contract.

Phase 3 was the construction of the main building. Perry Construction was again the main contractor.

“The biggest challenge we faced was working through the rainstorms and the wind blowing off of Lake Erie. The ground conditions were poor at times and that made construction difficult. The design of the building also was a challenge. The use of the structural steel/wood combination made the geometry difficult,” said Perry Construction Project Superintendent Dan Kean.

The large format theater was built during Phase 4, also under Perry Construction with subcontractors Scobell Plumbing and Keystone Electric, both of Erie, Pa.

The 5th and final phase of the TREC was the installation of exhibits, including interactive exhibits, the orientation theater and the towers. Explus Inc. of Dullus, Va., received a $2.4 million contract for this phase.

“In keeping with the ’green’ theme of the Center, we used recycled materials for the exhibits and seating in the theater, such as fiber-board composition and Trex plastic,” said Clete Wood, project manager of Explus Inc. Explus also was responsible for the lighting in the theater, AV hardware, and the patterned floor treatments. Explus has been in the exhibition fabrication business for more than 25 years.

With the completion of all phases, the project’s total cost was $31 million. Permit delays and harsh winter weather set the project back approximately one year.

The Presque Isle Partnership manages three visitor service retail operations at the TREC. They are the “Big Green Screen,” where visitors can enjoy a large-format film on a four-story tall screen that is both educational and entertaining; the “Sunset Cafe,” offering dine-in and take-out; and a greatly expanded “Nature Shop,” which will continue to offer an array of books about nature, Erie and Presque Isle, painting and hand crafted pieces by Erie area artisans and other quality merchandise about nature, science and the ecology. Proceeds from these operations will remain at Presque Isle to fund needed improvements on the Park and at the Center.

The center was built as a premier “green building” within Pennsylvania’s state park system. It was designed to achieve a silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Incorporated into its design and function are environmental features such as natural ventilation, an inverted roof to collect rainwater, materials made from recycled content, native landscaping, renewable energy usage and a porous asphalt parking area. Panels throughout the center explain the green features.

TREC was named in December 2002 as a tribute to former Gov. Tom Ridge, who grew up in Erie, worked at the park as a young man and provided funding for the Center and numerous Presque Isle projects during his administration.

“This park has been a part of my entire life,” Ridge said at ribbon cutting ceremonies. “It’s an honor to have this facility bear my name, knowing the incredible impact it will have on the young children who visit it, the researchers who make new discoveries in its laboratories, and the new people it introduces to Presque Isle and the vibrant Erie region.”

Since its grand opening in May, the TREC has had more than 120,000 visitors. The theater is currently alternating between “Lewis and Clark” and “Everest” for its weekend features. On Tuesdays, the theater has family night including “The Lion King,” “The Incredibles,” “101 Dalmations” and “Toy Story.”

Throughout the winter months, the Center also will offer “Hot Winter Jazz and Blues” every other Thursday.

In May, the Migratory Bird Festival is being planned for the Pennsylvania Great Lakes Region. Many of the details for these later events are still in the planning stages.

Presque Isle State Park currently averages 4 million visitors a year, most of whom come between June and September. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources manages the park and the new center.

For more information, contact the Presque Isle Park office at 814/833-7424 or visit or www. CEG

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