The nature center is built. There’s only one thing missing

The first phase of work is done on a new Lower Keys nature center but it’ll be another year before the doors open.

The 1,840-square-foot Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex building at 30587 Overseas Highway on Big Pine Key was finished in February. Costs will exceed the $210,180 spent to put up the building, said National Key Deer Refuge ranger Kristie Killam.

Funding is still needed for exhibits inside the building, the parking lot, public restroom, nature trail boardwalk, outside exhibits, interpretive panels and landscaping.

Estimated costs may approach $2 million, Killam said. A move-in date from the current visitor center in the Winn-Dixie plaza on Key Deer Boulevard hasn’t been set.

“Our vision for this nature center is a community gathering place for both locals and visitors where they can learn about the many special plans and animals that can only be found in the Florida Keys,” said refuge manager Daniel Clark.

The new nature center will have a display area and book store, two offices and classroom space for schools. It is surrounded by refuge land.

The refuge’s lease in the shopping center at $86,600 a year, including utilities, will end in summer 2018. Officials said in May 2016 the financial return on the new building when factoring in no rent would be realized in six years. About 25,000 people annually visit the center in the shopping plaza, officials say.

“We plan to have various activities throughout this year where the community can get involved,” Killam said. “One easy way folks can start getting engaged is with exhibits. We want our exhibits to be interactive, fun and focused on what makes our natural areas so unique.”

The refuges complex oversees the National Key Deer Refuge, Key West National Wildlife Refuge, Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.

People can share suggestions for what they’d like to see at the new nature center, Killam said, by emailing or dropping them off at the visitor center at 179 Key Deer Blvd.