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New Audubon Center adds to ecotourism attractions

Audubon Center Building_4CBy LISA MONTI 

Jackson County just added a major new ecotourism attraction, the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, which opened Oct. 15 in Moss Point. Along with swamp cruises, birding excursions, kayak tours and nature trails, the center should help to attract more visitors to the state who like the experience of being in nature and who spend money doing it.

The $2.3 million center started taking shape in 2004 and the first phase of the project opened in 2006 at a site not too far from the new facility. Though the center was built just off Moss Point’s Main Street, the scenic, quiet setting makes visitors forget how close they are to the city’s traffic and activities.

A bit of landscaping still needs to be done along with some minor tweaks but executive director Mark LaSalle, staffers Mozart Mark Dedeaux, Lisa Wesson and Erin Parker and numerous volunteers have been greeting visitors since opening day.

“We had a really good first week, about 30 folks a day. We’re getting as we anticipated a lot of locals and visitors,” LaSalle said.

Nature tourists, led by the large birding community, like to travel to places where they can enjoy more than one experience or attraction, LaSalle said. It’s what nature tourists look for and what they can find along Mississippi’s Coast, given the numerous state parks, scenic blueways, barrier islands, nature tours and other options.

“We all need to be on the same page and that certainly has been the case here. We have a good working relationship across the Coast. We send people to each other all the time,” he said.

Renee Areng, executive director of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, said, “The Pascagoula River Audubon Center is truly the gateway to nature-based tourism across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Visitors are seeking an authentic experience where they can actively engage in our offerings, like touring the Pascagoula River and learning more about the area through interactive exhibits. This unique asset draws an important conservation-focused niche to our region.”

LaSalle, a wetland ecologist, said birders make up the largest segment of nature tourists and they particularly like to travel to places where they can go to more than one spot. The coastal birding trail includes 40 sites that visitors can easily reach from one side of the Coast to the other.

“The birding community is the heart and soul of nature tourism,” he said.

They won’t be disappointed at the new Audubon Center which includes a covered area where bird watchers can see any number and species of birds from snowy egret and baby blue herons to bald eagles and osprey. During migration, the variety and volume of birds passing through is noteworthy.

The 5,000-square-foot center building features an interpretive center with interactive kiosks showcasing the 81-mile-long Pascagoula River, the largest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states.

There also is a fine art gallery featuring local artists and aquarium displays containing fish, turtles and other indigenous wildlife. The elevated building has a welcoming porch with cypress rockers and a closeup view of the surrounding marsh. The property also contains a remnant of the historic Pascagoula Street Railway & Power Co. trolley line that connected Moss Point and Pascagoula in the early 1900s and a restored Scout Hut built more than 80 years ago that now serves as an outdoor pavilion and meeting room.

Young visitors have their own play garden with natural materials including dirt piles and logs. There’s also a hummingbird and butterfly garden, a meadow with native wildflowers and grasses, and a rain garden.

A two-hour interpretive boat tour by the local McCoy’s River & Marsh Tours experts will also be available from the center’s pier.

LaSalle said the Audubon Society required a second business plan that included enough  money to maintain the center’s operation for two years. “Part of the projections were based on what we consider modest visitor rates. We anticipate 8,000 to 10,000 visitors in the first year,” he said.

Funding for the center’s construction came from generous community support and through Sen. Thad Cochran’s office, then-Gov. Haley Barbour’s office, with additional support from Gov. Phil Bryant,  as well as  donations from Chevron, which has a refinery in Pascagoula, and smaller local businesses.

“We are held to a pretty high standard (by Audubon) and through large community support we got approval to build in late 2011in the face of the recession,” LaSalle said.

The Pascagoula River Audubon Center is located at 5107 Arthur St. in Moss Point.

The telephone number is 228-475-0825. The website is http://pascagoulariver.audubon.org.


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