New Austin Cary learning center unveiled

The University of Florida's School of Forest Resources and Conservation hosts a Spring Celebration for the dedication of the newly built Austin Cary Learning Center Saturday Apr. 5, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla.

Amy L. Stuart/Correspondent
Published: Saturday, April 5, 2014 at 7:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 5, 2014 at 7:29 p.m.

Fire destroyed the old one. Now, after three years, a new learning center stands in the Austin Cary Forest located between Gainesville and Waldo.

The new and improved Austin Cary Learning Center had its dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday, improving upon and replacing the Austin Cary Conference Center that burned down in 2011.

“The new learning center was truly a community and university effort,” said Tim White, director of the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation.

A crowd gathered late Saturday morning in the Austin Cary Forest to see the unveiling of the building, which will be used for educating students in UF’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation as well as the general public. It is also available to rent by the public for events such as weddings or faculty retreats or team-building exercises.

“The goal is to provide a great place to have a meeting or social event, and at the same time, learn about why forests are important in our world,” White said.

The center includes a gallery, a classroom, a library, a conference center and a deck overlooking Lake Mize, one of the deepest lakes in the state. It even boasts a full-sized catering kitchen.

“Whether it is a group of professionals or local elementary school students, we hope to provide them with an enjoyable experience on Lake Mize, while teaching them about the many important roles that forests play in their lives,” said Jack Payne, senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources at UF. “Thousands will benefit from activities on-site at the new learning center, and many programs taught here will be offered via distance education to audiences statewide and beyond.”

Before the ribbon was cut, everyone gathered under a tent outside the building. White took the podium to thank the people who helped bring the project together.

“For us, it really is a celebration,” he said. Everybody in the forestry and conservation community got together with a common sense of purpose to create the learning center, he added.

The biggest challenge to finishing the facility was raising the $2 million it would take to complete it, White said.

“There was no budget,” he said. The community, alumni and stakeholders all came together to make it happen, he said. They donated not just money, but material, time and expertise.

Around half the money came from public funds, while the other half was provided by private donors. All the donors were listed in the program at the event, but the top six got special recognition. The six major donors provided 25 percent of the total money for the project. White referred to them as founders of the Austin Cary Learning Center, and each one has a granite plaque somewhere in the building.

Vam York, one of the founders, donated in honor of her late husband, E.T. York. E.T. was active in supporting the forestry department, Vam said.

“I’m real excited about this building,” she said.. It will get boy scouts, girl scouts, students and the general public out in the forest to learn about nature, she added.

The other founders are the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, Harold and Juanita Mikell, Plum Creek timber company, private land-owning company Rayonier and Wayne Smith and Mitzi Austin.

After his first speech, White introduced the crowd to

“This celebration today is about all of us,” said Jack Vogel, president of Natural Resource Planning Services. Not just people in the forestry community, but people in the wider field of conservation and natural resources, he said.

Two forestry students, Michelle Franklin and Rebecca Creech, also offered praise for the efforts to make the center a reality.

“The graduates of 2014 are jealous of every student to come,” Creech said.

The two recounted memories they had with professors of the School of Forest Resources and Conservation in Austin Cary Forest.

The learning Center opens Monday, and any individual or organization can make a reservation.

“We already have folks signed up to use it,” White said.

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