The closest thing to an office for Sarasota Audubon President Jeanne Dubi is a boardwalk that extends over the water in the Celery Fields off Palmer Boulevard. It’s here that Dubi chats with tourists who are birding for the first time.
“We’ll see you again sometime soon when we have our Nature Center,” Dubi told the tourists Monday before they left the popular bird-watching location.
In the spring, a makeshift parking lot less than 100 yards away will become the site of a $1.3 million environmental education and visitor center. The Sarasota Audubon Society will operate the center and fund it using donations. The society will lease the land from the county for $10 per year; so far, it has raised 70% of the funds needed to build the center.
Currently, the county is building a restroom facility in the location. The Audubon Society plans to break ground on its nature center shortly after the restroom’s completion. The nature center will use infrastructure from the county facility.
The Celery Fields was primarily an agricultural site for its namesake vegetable before the county bought the roughly 400 acres in 1995. After that, the county converted it into a stormwater resource by digging retention ponds that store runoff before it flows into Phillippi Creek and Sarasota Bay.
“That’s when the birds came,” Dubi said.
In total, 217 different species of birds have been identified within the boundaries of the Celery Fields. According to Dubi, in comparison to the roughly 300 species in the county as a whole, that number is remarkable for one location. And the variety is notable, as well. For example, a possible sighting of the Limpkin, a large marsh bird, attracts people from around the country.
“And we have plenty of them in Sarasota,” Dubi said.
Bird watching generates $250 million in annual economic impact for Sarasota County, according to an Audubon pamphlet. The nature center would further bolster local eco-tourism.
“The nature center will be a significant addition to our destination providing new nature and wildlife programming to the delight of residents and visitors alike,” wrote Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley in the pamphlet.
Dubi envisions an exhibit explaining the history of the Celery Fields within the proposed nature center. Ringling College of Art and Design students have inked preliminary plans for a garden.
Sarasota Audubon will have a site for connecting with students, with a 24-seat enclosed classroom and an outdoor patio surrounding the building. Plans include a reception area, restrooms, a break room and an administrative office.
And, while the Sarasota Audubon Society will soon fulfill its need for a physical location, Benderson Development is negotiating with the county to buy a 42-acre parcel one mile north of the proposed nature center to fulfill another need: industrial space.
According to research from CoStar, a commercial real estate information and marketing service, industrial vacancy rates in Sarasota and Manatee counties have fallen from 12% in 2010 to less than 8% in the second quarter of 2013. As the economy rebounds, firms are quickly occupying manufacturing sites, said Benderson Development Vice President Larry Fineberg during a Nov. 26 Sarasota County Commission meeting.
Benderson Development has offered the county $2.5 million for the property near the Celery Fields to initially construct 200,000 square feet of multi-tenant buildings for light manufacturing, assembly warehousing, research and development and office space, according to preliminary bid documents.
Fineberg explained to commissioners that creating the needed product would make Sarasota County competitive with Manatee County in terms of attracting new firms to the area.
“The one thing we can say about industrial and commercial is on the weekend it’s quiet,” Dubi said. “All around here you can see industrial spaces, and we live quite well with them.”
During the meeting, commissioners directed Benderson to include specifications for lighting and a buffer to be compatible with the nearby environmental needs. “We’re going to make it fit with everything else around it,” Fineberg said. “But, getting a shovel in the ground is the most important thing now.”
Sarasota Audubon will help the development company choose native flora for such a buffer, Dubi said.
“We will be working with Benderson all along the way in the process,” Dubi said. “The important thing is that the Celery Fields and the nature center are really protected.”
Contact Alex Mahadevan at [email protected]