Elk center has ‘soft’ opening this month

Benezette, Pa. – By the time you read this, the $12 million Elk
Country Visitor Center will be open here and you can visit.

Maybe.

Billed as the largest elk-watching and conservation-education
facility east of the Mississippi, the state-owned center off
Winslow Hill Road in the heart of the Keystone State’s five-county
elk range had been scheduled to open with considerable fanfare
Sept. 9.

The opening was already postponed for more than a year by
contractor delays and ownership issues related to the
well-publicized, abrupt pullout last fall from the project by the
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

In a public-private venture, the elk foundation had partnered
with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to
purchase the site and develop the center. The foundation had
promised to cover operating costs.

Called the linchpin of the much-vaunted Pennsylvania Wilds
Tourism concept for northern tier counties by Gov. Ed Rendell,
state officials had hoped the 245-acre property would open during
the elk-breeding rut, which generally occurs the entire month of
September.

“And we want to accomplish that with a soft opening in early
September,” said Rawley Cogan, president and CEO of the Keystone
Elk Country Alliance, the organization that formed last December to
replace the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and operate the
center.

“Then we will hold a grand opening in early to mid-October that
the governor and other dignitaries, alliance members and local
supporters can attend and celebrate the center. We are still trying
to nail down a date for the governor for a grand opening.”

At that ceremony – it has been widely rumored and Cogan didn’t
deny it – a major, new, six-figure donation from a foundation or
other supporting organization to fund the first 18 months of the
8,450-square-foot center’s operation, will be announced.

Already the Richard King Mellon, Dominion, and Thoreson
foundations have made major contributions to the elk center.

The commonwealth has provided $6 million for construction of the
center, but no operating funds, pointed out DCNR Secretary John
Quigley. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation volunteers in
Pennsylvania raised the $2.4 million to buy the site, which had
been an old farm often frequented by elk

“We feel that it is important to open the center during the rut
so people can visit and enjoy the facility during a time when an
estimated 75,000 people visit the Benezette area to watch and
appreciate the elk,” Cogan said.

“We are not sure at this point if the inside of the center will
be completely finished – if all of the exhibits will be installed
and completed – but I will be very surprised and disappointed if it
is not in a condition that the public can safely enjoy.”

Cogan explained that state officials and alliance leaders had
been tight-lipped about when the center would open out of concern
for protocol.

“We just haven’t wanted to trump the governor, that’s all,” he
said. “He has been such a strong supporter of this project.

“But there is a real good chance that the building will be open
and people can drive onto the property and see elk in early
September. They should check our website, www.experienceelk
country.com, before they come.”

The most recent delay in opening the center does not involve
money, Cogan stressed. It is due to contractors being late.

“They missed deadlines,” he said in late August. “There are
still things in the building that are not complete, and we are
still waiting for them to get done so we can install the
exhibits.

“When a partner like the elk foundation stepped out, it set us
back – there is no way to get around it,” Cogan added. “The state
never intended to get involved the way they had to. It caught DCNR
off guard.”

Cogan should know. He had been the lands program manager for the
Northeast with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation from 2003-09. In
that role, he had been instrumental in planning and developing the
elk center. When the foundation pulled out of the center last year,
he resigned.

Soon after, he joined the newly created Keystone Elk Country
Alliance, and is now supervising the five people the group has
hired to operate the center.

“It was a great boost to our cause the day Rawley Cogan agreed
to serve as president and CEO of the Keystone Elk Country
Alliance,” said John Geissler, of Erie, chairman of the board for
the group.

“Rawley is a wildlife biologist noted for his work with
Pennsylvania elk [when he worked for the Game Commission in the
1980s and ‘90s].”

Moving forward in the Pennsylvania elk range, according to
Cogan, the alliance – which currently boasts about 850 members –
will focus its resources in three areas: conservation education,
habitat enhancement and permanent land protection.

“Our intention for this world-class facility is to provide a
safe and rewarding elk-watching experience and engage visitors in
educational exhibits that will further their understanding of elk
and their natural habitat,” he said.

In addition to providing opportunities to see free-roaming elk
on the property, via windows, vistas, trails and blinds, the center
will offer a variety of interactive displays about elk, birds and
trees. The highlight will be a life-sized natural history display
in the center’s great room portraying the interconnection of
animals to their environment.

When completed, visitors also will be able to watch real-time
video of the elk range on screens in the center to see the wildlife
that wander into view.

“The elk center will be dedicated to the hiking, mountain
biking, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, bird watching, wildlife
watching and hunting in this region,” Cogan said.

“We focus on elk and elk country, but we want to be more broad
in our audience and outreach. We want to address nonhunters as well
as hunters, and we want them all to be good stewards of the land
and the habitat.”

Keystone Country Elk Alliance also will operate the elk mountain
homestead on the elk center property where visitors can stay
overnight, as a fund raiser to help fund center operation.

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