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'A real teaching tool'
Environmental center celebrates first anniversary

BUFORD - Bubba has become a little spoiled, Steve Cannon admits.

The red-eared slider, a turtle who is free to walk the grounds of the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center and gets to preen before up to 300 kids a day, pawed at his tank as Cannon took supporters on a recent tour of the center.

He lifted the turtle out of the tank and talked about the first year success of the center, which is home to fish, horseshoe crabs, crustaceans and more, as well as an interactive learning venue for young and old.

In its first year, the joint venture between Gwinnett County, the local school system and the University of Georgia has hosted field trips from 55 schools and seen 25,000 regular visitors.

To celebrate the anniversary, the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center Foundation will host a $75-per-person fundraiser this weekend.

In a period when the environment has become a key political issue and water conservation has become critical, Cannon said the center's message has been well-received.

"When you are 90 percent focused on water, it's just so timely," Cannon said, pointing out that the center runs on treated wastewater. Its green roof, planted with succulents that are somewhat drought-resistant, has had to get a few waterings, though, he admits.

Inside, interactive play-while-you-learn displays and laboratories await the youngsters. And the center hosts everything from "mad scientist" birthday parties to wedding receptions and outdoor classes.

Jason West, a member of the foundation, recently took a class on raccoons with his 6-year-old son.

"It was age appropriate and it was a lot of fun," he said. "Immediately after we finished, we had to go look for raccoons around our house."

With a population of kids used to indoor activities, the foundation members hope a planned playground will help merge science and nature.

Another addition for next year includes the beginning of a historic village. A family donated a historic 19th century home, which officials plan to move to the site and open for tours.

For the expansions and planned changes in exhibits, the foundation hopes to raise $3.5 million every three to five years. The group of businessmen and women is off to a good start, with more than 250 people signed up to attend Saturday's fundraiser by earlier this week.

"It's a celebration of 12 months," foundation member Steve Hill said of the event. "In the next 12 months, we'll do the serious fundraising."

As part of that effort, a gift shop will open at the center Saturday. All proceeds from the shop, which features West's son's favorite, the Cricket Lick-It lollipop, science kits, T-shirts and collectibles, will go back to the center.

"I think this is one of Gwinnett's crown jewels, but when you look, you have to see this is the tip of an iceberg," West said. "It's a real teaching tool."

For more information, call 770-904-3500 or visit www.gwinnettehc.com.