With the pedestrian bridge crossing State Road 100 complete, the county is now planning its next steps: creating a $13 million eco discovery center and a 1,000-acre park that would connect to the bridge’s southern entrance.
The eco discovery center would be a multi-purpose building focusing on environmental and ecological education about the habitats and wildlife of Flagler County and the region. The center would also serve as a connection point to the pedestrian bridge and the future Bulow Creek Headwaters Regional Park.
Flagler County Tourism Development Director Amy Lukasik presented a conceptual plan for the discovery center at an Oct. 19 Tourism Development Council. The future Bulow Creek Headwaters Regional Park is in the very early stages of planning, assistant county engineer Hamid Tabassian said.
[It’s] the ‘Bridge to the Future.' ... This is going to be a great project for the county and for the region.”
— Hamid Tabassian, assistant county engineer
The pedestrian bridge was a two-year-long construction project that cost $12 million, largely paid for by federal and state grants. It was unveiled in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 19.
The bridge garnered skeptical and negative remarks from the public — with some even calling it the “bridge to nowhere,” referencing how it abruptly ends on the south side of S.R. 100 — but Tabassian said that once these two projects are complete, the bridge will make more sense.
“[It’s] the ‘Bridge to the Future,’” Tabassian said. “This is going to be a great project for the county and for the region.”
Eco-Discovery Center to drive eco-tourism in Flagler
The eco discovery center is slated for a 23-acre empty lot on the west side of the bridge, along the south side of S.R. 100. The preliminary design for the lot includes two ponds, outdoor classrooms, seating areas, an observation tower and bike and kayak rental equipment.
Lukasik said the center will connect directly to the future park and the pedestrian bridge.
The building would function as an information hub, with interactive educational displays, a gift shop, a ticket sales counter for local events, and maps and guides to the local trails, parks and waterways, according to Lukasik’s presentation to the TDC.
“The goal is to add additional revenue streams for local businesses,” Lukasik said.
She said the tourism department is also considering adding arts and culture-based shuttle tours around Flagler County.
The building would include office spaces for the county’s Tourism Development department and office and event spaces that would be available to rent, another source of potential revenue for the county, Lukasik said.
All of the revenue opportunities in the building would, at minimum, offset the cost to run the facility, she said.
“The event space alone, we’re gonna kill it,” Lukasik said. “We’re gonna just kill it, kill it, kill it. I have no doubt.”
The facility is estimated to cost around $13 million, she said. The TDC has already earmarked $1.5 million, and funding for the center is among the county’s legislative requests to the state government.
The event space alone, we're gonna kill it. We're gonna just kill it, kill it, kill it. I have no doubt."
— Amy Lukasik, Tourism Development director
Lukasik said the project combines education, conservation and economic initiatives important to the state and therefore will likely qualify for funding from a variety of sources.
The department is hoping that a lot of the money will come from the state, she said.
“All those initiatives that [are] important to the state — our facility is the perfect project to support those efforts,” she said.
She said a facility like this will be a strong ecotourism draw for the county.
“I call it the hook,” she said. “I look at ecotourism as ... an anchor tourism product.”
A 2022 study from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection showed that participation in outdoor recreation facilities has increased 26% since the pandemic.
This is what people want, especially after COVID. The outdoor recreation world really took off [after the pandemic].” — Amy Lukasik, Tourism Development director
Of the top 10 desired outdoor facilities, residents and tourists were found to want many of the same things: hiking and walking trails, beach access, parks, biking trails and access points for canoes and kayaks.
“This is what people want, especially after COVID,” Lukasik said. “The outdoor recreation world really took off [after the pandemic].”
Bulow Creek Headwaters Regional Park will span 1,000 acres
Between the discovery center and the Bulow Creek park, Lukasik said, the county should be able to provide some of the amenities the study found that people want the most.
“The hope is that the Bulow Park will open up water access as well to Bulow Creek,” she said. “This is all untouched [land], and it’s the first opportunity to open all that up to the public.”
The Bulow Creek Headwaters Regional Park project is still in the very early stages of planning, Tabassian said. County engineers are negotiating a contract with the design firm Kimley-Horn for the park’s planning and design phases. That contract must be presented to and approved by the Flagler County Planning Board.
The planning and design phases are each likely to take a year and a half, he said. There’s a lot to consider.
“Typically these [projects] take quite a while,” he said. “It’s all in the visioning, if you may call it, phase.”
The cost of the park, he said, would depend on what amenities — how many miles of trails, how much of the trails would need to be elevated, educational features, water access points — would be added to the park, as well as the condition of the land itself.
In the summer of 2024, he said, the county will hold its first public meeting on the future park.
A large part of the planning process will include getting feedback from the community feedback through surveys and town hall-style meetings, Lukasik said.
“It’s going to be a very community-wide process of asking the public, the residents … ‘What do you want for the park?’” she said.
It's going to be beautiful. ... And it's going to be an asset here in the county that everyone is going to benefit from and enjoy."
— Hamid Tabassian, assistant county engineer
Tabassian said the park would have trails throughout, some of them elevated as they pass through wetlands. Both the north and the south end of the park would likely have their own trailheads.
The pedestrian bridge would connect the trails in the Bulow Creek park to the county’s Lehigh and Graham Swamp trails.
Tabassian said he has high hopes for the Bulow Creek park and believes that once the park and the tourism center are completed, the pedestrian bridge project will make much more sense to the public than it does now.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” he said. “And it’s going to be an asset here in the county that everyone is going to benefit from and enjoy. Not only the residents here, but our visitors, too.”