Construction begins soon to replace burned Austin Cary center

This artist's rendering of the planned new Austin Cary Memorial Forest Conference Center was provided by Walker Architects.

Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 11:21 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 4:51 p.m.

Down a limestone road about a mile and a half into a 2,000-acre forest northeast of Gainesville is a mound of graded fill dirt the color of a Florida panther, waiting for its transformation into a busy and noisy construction site.

Within weeks, this tranquil spot crouching next to a 100-foot-deep lake among the cypress and pine trees will be crawling with construction workers laying the foundation, conduits and pipes for the new Austin Cary Memorial Forest Conference Center.

Construction of the $1.5 million building will begin almost two years after the original conference center, a 25-year-old log cabin built by students and graduates of the UF School of Forest Research and Conservation, burned to ashes in a matter of hours.

The fire, which struck at the academic and social heart of UF's tight-knit forestry school, galvanized supporters, who quickly raised the money needed to build a bigger, modern facility that is aesthetically pleasing and still incorporates the natural elements of its surroundings.

"The fraternity of foresters banded together," said Jack Vogel, president of Natural Resource Planning Services and a graduate of the forest resources school who was asked to lead the fundraising effort for the new building. "It was really gratifying."

The response from the forestry community was immediate and generous, especially given the economic climate, he said. While it is a big industry that contributes millions to the state's economy, it is run by a close-knit group of professional foresters with deep emotional ties to the old log cabin, he said.

"Seeing everybody pitch in together says a lot about the school, that the people thought so well of it," Vogel said. "It speaks to what kind of service and educational environment was created there."

The original cabin was built with in-kind contributions and the sweat of students, including Vogel, who helped drive the nails into the cabin. It was used for meetings, school trips and weddings.

The new center meets all current building codes and standards, and was designed by UF architects, Vogel said. Private donors raised about half the money and the rest came from IFAS and the President's Office, said Tim White, director of the School of Forest Resources and Conservation.

"It's been inspiring to see how many alumni, friends and stakeholders were involved to put together this fundraising effort," White said. As many as 150 donors contributed from $20 to $150,000 to make it a reality, he said.

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m., with UF President Bernie Machen scheduled to deliver an address. The event has 300 people registered to attend.

The project should take about eight months to complete, White said. Once it's done, it will be a haven 10 miles from Gainesville for all to enjoy, he said.

The forest, acquired in the 1930s as a part of the Works Project Administration, has been used as a training ground and research center for UF students from a variety of schools, a working timber forest with harvesting and controlled burn operations, and an educational and resource center for school children and the public.

The new center will be half again as big as the old center and have a classroom.

Not only will people get to enjoy the tranquility that a forest provides while sitting on the deck of the new center overlooking the lake. Through interactive educational displays, they will learn about the recreational benefits and commercial products that forests provide, like the touch screens on cellular phones. They are made of cellulose, White said.

"It's really going to be a true learning center," said Michael Andreu, an associate professor and faculty forest manager at Austin Cary. "We plan to engage the public a little more than we have in the past."

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