In 1996, plans for a $5.5 million nature complex in Marshy Point Park took shape that included a nature center with an education wing, a trail network, bridges and outdoor exhibits.
But when construction began at the 500-acre park in 1999, funding cuts had reduced the project to a nature center - minus the classrooms - and a parking lot.
A decade later, using $2.8 million from the county and the state, the second phase of the Marshy Point plan is under way, if belatedly. The work includes a canoe storage facility and dock, bridges, a second parking lot and an entry road leading into the north half of the park, all scheduled to be completed this spring, county parks officials say.
"Everybody who has been involved with Marshy Point ... is happy that they are finally seeing the fruits of their labors," said John Markley, the deputy director of the county's parks and recreation department.
And when the current construction is completed, bids will go out on the third phase - a $1.1 million education wing - that could be finished by the fall of 2008, chief naturalist Robert Stanhope said. And plans for a fourth phase that entails a hiking trail network could move forward within a year.
Located in Dundee and Saltpeter Creeks Park in Chase, Marshy Point is home to 20 tree species, 50 plant species, 50 breeding birds, and wildlife ranging from deer and otters to snails and lizards. The fish species in the nearby creek include stripers, bass, blue gill, perch, catfish and pipe fish.
The road to expansion at the park, which welcomes thousands of visitors each year, has been a winding one, said Stanhope.
After the scaled-back nature center opened in the spring of 2000, a volunteer council was created to raise the money needed to complete the facility.
"The council immediately addressed the omissions from the original plan," said Stanhope, who has worked for the county for 27 years.
The volunteers began a letter-writing campaign.
"They basically told people from the state and county that we had a pitcher's mound and four bases, and now we need the bleachers, a snack shop and a ticket booth," Stanhope said.
The effort worked. The county overcame a $600,000 shortfall for the second phase. With the canoe storage building and dock, visitors to the park will have access to the water.
"We needed access to the bay, and now we will have it," Stanhope said.
The classrooms and other facilities will fulfill another pressing need, he said.
"Currently when students come out here and it's raining outside, they have to come into the center and squeeze into the space we have," Stanhope said. "We need classrooms so they can spread out and have room to explore."
Bids for the education wing could go out in June. In addition to state and county money, about $100,000 is coming from the volunteer council through fundraisers. Earlier this month, the Popsicle Plunge - in which dozens of people signed up to take a quick dip into the Gunpowder River - raised more than $15,000, Stanhope said. To date, the council has raised about $80,000, he said.
Hiking trails will be another welcome addition. The trails will be a part of the Eastern Regional Greenway Trail System that the county will begin creating in the next year, Markley said. The initial trails will run from Marshy Point to Gunpowder State Park. Other trails will lead to Eastern Regional Park.
The county is seeking permission from the legislature for a bond issue of $500,000 to begin work on the trail network.