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James River Association planning $5 million educational center along river near Great Shiplock Park
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James River Association planning $5 million educational center along river near Great Shiplock Park

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After helping another nonprofit purchase 5 acres of riverfront property in Richmond’s East End, the James River Association has announced plans to build a $5 million educational center near Great Shiplock Park.

The association announced its plans Tuesday alongside representatives from the local Capital Region Land Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit based in Arlington County that last week finalized its purchase of privately owned land that’s currently fenced off and closed to the public.

The property’s previous owners had pitched different development plans for the property in recent years, including a mixed-use project called Echo Harbor. A new conservation easement that’s part of the land deal prohibits such commercial development, but will allow the Conservation Fund to sell part of the property so that the association can build its new center.

Bill Street, CEO of the James River Association, said the center will help students throughout the Richmond area build personal relationships to the river and environment. Street said that’s more important than ever now as young people spend more time with electronic devices every day and as United Nations climate scientists are warning that global warming is worsening.

“Our programs focus on hands-on, experiential learning to teach STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) topics and lessons that correlate to Virginia’s standards of learning,” Street said. “When complete, the James River Center will be a signature building on Richmond’s east riverfront that will allow the association to provide students of Richmond Public Schools and the region with immersive ... experiences.”

The remaining land will be transferred to the city so that it can be incorporated into the James River Park System, said Heather Richards, mid-Atlantic regional director of the Conservation Fund.

By placing the property under a conservation easement, the city and the nonprofit partners will “protect and ultimately open to the public one of the last remaining unprotected riverfront properties in the city.”

In addition to improving public access to the river, she said the purchase of the property will also allow officials to realign the Virginia Capital Trail along the stretch of Dock Street so that it’s closer to the water. She and others also said that it will preserve the view of the James River from Libby Hill Park, which originally inspired the city’s 18th century founders to name it after Richmond-Upon-Thames in England.

Before Tuesday’s news conference, about a dozen children from the Salvation Army Boys& Girls Club met with James River Association instructors. Wading into the water, the children touched and held minnows they caught with a large fishing net as one of the instructors taught them about food chains and the river’s ecosystem. Afterward, the group took several kayaks and canoes for a short expedition.

Association officials said those kinds of experiences are examples of what can be fostered through the new center.

Justin Doyle, the association’s community conservation manager, said the center likely will feature several classrooms and an aquarium. He said the association is consulting Richmond Public Schools and local youth development and education organizations, such as the Blue Sky Fund and Peter Paul Development Center, to develop plans and programming for the center.

Josh Bearman, a K-12 science curriculum specialist for Richmond Public Schools, said he’s hopeful that the programming can incorporate interdisciplinary lessons about science, physical activity, art and history.

“I’d like to see us using it across the board, not just for scientific purposes,” he said. “We should be getting kids out here early and often.”

Street said the association is planning to pay about $850,000 to acquire the land for the center, but that the organization will need to continue raising funds in the coming months to pay for the rest of the building project.

He said the exact development timeline is still undetermined, but it could be built and operational as soon as 2024.

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