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Ground broke on new Visitors Center

GATESVILLE – Green is one way to describe nature. It’s also slang for money.

With those two thoughts in mind, Merchants Millpond State Park in Gates County will become the site of the state’s first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rated facility as the North Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation will invest $3.6 million into building a Visitor Center at the Millpond.

The LEED green building rating system – developed and administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington D.C.-based, nonprofit coalition of building industry leaders – is designed to promote design and construction practices that increase profitability while reducing the negative environmental impacts of buildings and improving occupant health and well-being.

Set against a breathtaking view of the millpond, a groundbreaking ceremony was held Saturday morning where local and state officials touted the environmentally friendly facility.

According to Jay Greenwood, Superintendent of Merchants Millpond State Park, the project will include a 6500-square-foot Visitor Center with exhibit space, an auditorium, classrooms, workspace and administrative offices, plus a 600-square-foot outdoor classroom. A trail will lead from to the outdoor classroom at the edge of the pond.

Greenwood also noted that the Visitor Center will also utilize an efficient geothermal heat pump system to protect the surroundings from the noise of the mechanical equipment and to reduce energy use, dual-flush toilets and waterless urinals. Collection cisterns will provide rainwater for irrigation and hosing down canoes at the Outdoor Classroom.

Locally available materials, such as Atlantic White Cedar wood siding, will be used on the interior and exterior of the building. At least 95 percent of the lumber will come from trees in the Dismal Swamp that were felled during Hurricane Fran.

“This is an environmentally friendly project,” Greenwood said. “We are very excited about this project. It will be great for our schoolchildren to come in and learn more about land conservation and about the local environment.”

Gates County native Frank Rountree, a member of the Millpond’s Advisory Committee, recalled his days as a youth exploring God’s beautiful creation.

“As a boy I spent a lot of time paddling and exploring the pond,” he recalled. “From that experience, I built a belief that this is a rare place, one that needs to be protected from bulldozers and development.”

Rountree noted that Merchants Millpond was the home of American eagles as well as many rare plants, birds and animals.

“We must protect this area, especially from the Navy’s plans to build an OLF (Outlying Landing Field) nearby,” Rountree stressed. “We do not need jets spewing fuel on this fragile land and water.”

Lewis Ledford, Director of the NC Division of Parks and Recreation, said Gates County is home of a very special place.

“Merchants Millpond is simply a beautiful place and one we need to protect,” Ledford said. “This park is open to anyone who wants to learn and study more about our beautiful environment.”

Ledford added that state parks are more than visitor centers, trails and land.

“They are about being good stewards of our environment and we need to do all we can to develop additional acreage into our system of state parks,” Ledford concluded.

Also speaking at Saturday’s groundbreaking was Jonathan Howes of Chapel Hill, Chairman of the Parks and Recreation Authority.

Designed by Frank Harmon, Architect PA in Raleigh, the building touches the site as lightly as possible in an attempt to protect and preserve the many species of plants and wildlife that call Merchants Mill Pond State Park home. The project respects the environment by minimizing the impact and footprint of both building and the parking area.

Daylight and views will be available in all occupied spaces, with particularly dramatic views available through the two-story glass window in the lobby and the adjacent porch along the pond side of the building. Every main space in the building will benefit from natural light through at least two sides of the room, which will reduce the need for artificial illumination.

Merchants Mill Pond is a Registered Natural Heritage Area that covers 1900 acres and includes the millpond and part of Lassiter Swamp. It was established as a state park so that its diverse biological, scenic, archaeological, geological and recreational values could be protected.