The El Dorado Airport Commission is continuing to work with state and national officials on plans to build a conservation education center on the grounds of South Arkansas Regional Airport at Goodwin Field.
During an airport commission meeting Monday, chairman Mickey Murfee said the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which is proposing the project, submitted a preliminary site plan for the “South Arkansas Conservation Education Center.”
Discussions about the facility began in 2016, with AGFC officials and airport commissioners saying that former AGFC chairman Emon Mahony, of El Dorado, got the ball rolling on the idea of bringing a conservation education center to El Dorado and South Arkansas.
To help sell the area, Mahony pointed to an abundance of outdoor recreational activities and opportunities.
Following a presentation by AGFC officials in May 2016, the airport commission enthusiastically signed off on the idea and agreed to seek guidance from the Federal Aviation Administration.
On Monday, Murfee and airport Commissioner Scott Cowling provided an update on the project, which is still in the planning stages.
The conservation education centers extend from the AGFC’s education division, which uses each site to offer hands-on experience and education about the natural elements and ecosystem that are specific to local areas.
There are four AFGC nature centers and four conservation centers in Arkansas.
The centers offer hundreds of educational programs each year, including archery, watchable wildlife workshops, stream ecology camps, wildlife management, etc.
Murfee said the AGFC is planning more conservation education centers around the state, adding that the El Dorado site would be the first to be located on airport property.
The proposed project offers a unique opportunity to combine nature and aviation, he said.
“We can use it in a manner to promote aviation because (the AGFC) uses planes to monitor game movement and population,” Murfee said.
“We want people to use this facility for more than just to hop on an airplane, even though that’s its primary purpose,” he said.
The El Dorado site would take up roughly 12 acres near existing wetlands on the south end of SARA property, just past the entrance off U.S. 82.
Murfee said the site would begin at the existing gravel parking lot across from the old Babe Ruth baseball field and extend westward through a wooded area toward an existing pond.
Early conceptual designs include a fishing pier; covered, 3-D, pop-up archery range; nature trail with interactive panels; and more amenities.
Murfee said there have also been discussions about adding a BB-gun shooting station.
Cowling said the center would be staffed with two, part-time employees and hunting licenses would be sold onsite.
AGFC officials said the center would be open to the public and available for school visits.
Cost estimates stand at $700,000, which would be covered by a 1/8-cent conservation sales tax that was passed by Arkansas voters in 1996 to assist the AGFC with its mission of managing fish and wildlife resources.
Mahony advocated for and helped to establish the tax proposal.
‘We rejected that’
Murfee said the AGFC initially submitted a proposal that called for a metal building.
“We rejected that,” he said succinctly.
The game and fish commission returned with a different approach: to allow the airport commission and other local officials to make recommendations about the exterior design.
The proposed 3,800-square-foot education center would hold a 600-square-foot classroom, gift shop, office space, exhibit display areas, boater/hunter safety testing areas and restrooms.
“Did they give any estimates on foot traffic? How many people would come out here?” airport Commissioner Craig Smart asked.
“They seemed to think there’ll be a lot. One of the main thrusts of the (conservation education centers) is archery,” Murfee said. “A lot of the schools have archery programs now.”
With improvements planned for the pond in the wooded area on the southwest end of the airport property, Murfee said the FAA expressed concern about the matter.
“They’re worried that birds would be attracted to the pond if it’s stocked with fish,” Murfee said.
To address the concern, the pond would be modified to include high walls, with water levels at a minimum of three feet, Murfee said.
He said the AGFC is also working with the airport commission on a lease agreement for the property and the setback of the building, noting that the area is a “logical place” for future airport development, possibly another taxiway with additional hangar space.
“I don’t think we need to give up that much area for this project,” Mayor Frank Hash said.
Alderman Billy Blann also asked if the project would affect an existing timber management contract with Deltic Timber, and commissioners said there will not likely be any significant impact on the contract.
Airport Commissioner Gary Harrell inquired about any consideration for fair market value from the FAA.
Jonathan Estes, manager of the municipal airport, said the FAA recommends a lease of 35 years.
Murfee said final plans, including conceptual designs and proposed leases, would be submitted to the FAA for its blessing.
Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.