Sunday, October 10, 2010

Elk County Visitor Center Has Something For Everyone

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Benezette will never be confused with Pittsburgh. The city has three professional sports venues, skyscrapers, bridges, traffic and hundreds of thousands of people.

The tiny Elk County community, by comparison, has a post office, a handful of businesses scattered along miles of two-lane road, less than two dozen houses, lots of trees — and elk.

That last feature allowed Benezette to enjoy a Pittsburgh-like celebration for a day.

On Wednesday, in a ceremony mimicking the excitement of Consol Energy Center's debut, Benezette celebrated the grand opening of the Elk Country Visitor Center. The 8,420-square-foot, lodge-like center is full not just of stuffed heads - though it's got a beautiful elk display in its main room - but interactive exhibits for adults and children, making it sort of nature center on high-tech, Disney World steroids. The 245 acres on which it sits feature hiking trails, viewing blinds and frequent visits by the area's elk, too.

The Center exists because of those animals, and - at the deepest level - because of hunters and the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Together, they brought the state's elk back from zero a century ago to a herd of maybe 750 today.

Without hunters, there are no elk, and without elk, there is no center. But it wasn't built for hunters, and that might prove its legacy.

Take the center's "4-D" theater, for example. It features a three-sided screen, vibrating floor, campfire, falling snow, scented rain, starry sky and other effects, all of them are very cool. But equally interesting is the narration. Through the voice of a grandfather and a biologist talking to a teenage boy more interested in computers than the outdoors, the movie gives hunters and the Game Commission their due as conservationists.

But it's clearly speaking to the non-hunting, non-rural tourists — such as Gov. Ed Rendell, who grew up in the city — who will visit by the thousands. The center is designed to explain the ins and outs of conservation and get them involved in it, said Rawley Cogan, executive director of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, which will run the facility.

"That's not aimed at (hunters)," Cogan said. "They know the history of hunting and conservation. This is for everyone else. We want them become a part of conservation."

That's not to say the center takes hunters for granted or that they won't enjoy visiting. But they already know the history of conservation. The center is trying to reach everyone else.

"For you, it's routine," Rendell said. "For us, who grew up walking on cement, it's amazing."

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