For a pair of friends from Columbus, Kansas, who had never visited the nature center in Wildcat Park, Friday's reopening of the building as the Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center introduced them to a whole new world of nature and learning.
While 11-year-old Ben Major was interested in the fish in the aquarium, 12-year-old Hannah Helwig couldn't take her eyes away from the animal exhibits.
"I think it's really cool," she said. "I like all the animals I get to see, and it goes along with my science (class) because I'm learning about ecosystems. This is my science (lesson) for the day."
Dozens of people turned out Friday for an open house for the new education center, which was reopening to the public after more than a year of closure for repairs and renovation by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The state agency took over management a few years ago after an original partner for the property, the National Audubon Society, pulled out.
MDC officials said the reopening of the building represents a new focus on Shoal Creek, the Joplin area's natural water resource, as well as partnerships with the city of Joplin and local volunteers and advocates, including the Wildcat Glades Friends Group. The building is designed to connect residents with nature and get them out onto the Wildcat Glades trails, along Shoal Creek and around the rare chert glades.
Sara Parker Pauley, director of MDC, said local involvement was key to shaping an updated vision for the education center.
"It was clear from the volunteers and from the members of the community that this was a special place for Joplin and for the surrounding area. It could not have been made more clear that you cared about this place and you cared what it looked like," she said. "What its future looked like, folks wanted to have a say in that, so we are delighted that we've had the opportunity to engage the community in what your Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center is. ... Your candid feedback has helped guide the development of what we see today."
The education center has a new roof and landscaping, and new permanent exhibits are forthcoming. Current temporary exhibits feature a variety of native animals, including an American bullfrog (Missouri's state amphibian), a bull snake, a Great Plains rat snake, an American toad and a Western slender glass lizard.
There is also an updated aquarium that simulates the area's native wetlands, a display of birds' nests and eggs, and a small replica of a house on which visitors can open the front door and open and close the window blinds to learn about trees in their neighborhood.
Visitors at the open house said they were happy to see the building open again. The Kovach family, of Joplin, were regulars at the nature center even before it was closed last summer, mom Kim Kovach said.
"We came out probably at least once a month to play in the natural play areas and walk the trails," she said. "We homeschool, so we used it for education and play."
Kovach said the new building is "beautiful" with lots of kid-friendly opportunities for her three children, ages 9, 4 and 1.
"They seemed to like all the hands-on features in the exhibits," she said.
The Wildcat Glades Friends Group will operate a gift shop in the building and will continue to provide events such as children's programs and an annual water festival, said Steve Gaarder, president of the board of directors.
"(The education center) is going to be a wonderful place for people to come, congregate, to see nature, to learn about nature and enjoy nature," he said.
The education center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. The trails are open from sunrise to sunset.