DUNEDIN — Atop the 25-foot observation deck, Caladesi Island visitors could admire an expanse of wildflowers, mangroves, white sand and glittering ocean. "Real Florida," supporters say.
The proposed Caladesi Discovery Center — a three-story, open-air, lumber and concrete tower with a central elevator — wouldn't just provide great views. It would also educate locals and travelers about the largely undeveloped island's history, flora and fauna, said Cindy Farris, president of Friends of Island Parks. It would include seasonal educational exhibits.
"The facility will allow visitors to learn more about what they're seeing and the ground they're standing on," said Farris, a Chicago native who, years ago, celebrated her first Florida New Year's Eve on the island. "It will provide a great practical lesson in the topography of our coast."
Caladesi Island is a state park directly north of Clearwater Beach. It is undeveloped except for a ferry dock, concession stand and gift shop.
The discovery center project has garnered support from the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce and community leaders. One obstacle: It would cost about $500,000, Farris estimates. Around $150,000 would fund the educational exhibits.
Farris believes Friends of Island Parks has raised more than $100,000. Tampa Bay artists, including the noted artist Christopher Still, have donated custom-framed, nature-themed prints to big sponsors.
Farris also wants to install a donation box on Caladesi Island asking for $1 from each visitor. The island annually attracts around 250,000 people.
Some detractors worry the construction of the observation tower would increase the ecological footprint on land that's only accessible by a long walk from Clearwater Beach or ferry. But the discovery center would be built over the old demolished fire tower near the ranger's station, Farris said, therefore not breaking new ground.
Caladesi Island State Park manager Pete Krulder said the discovery center would help people appreciate the wildlife and be inspired to preserve it.
"It would create a new visitor experience and teach people about all the beautiful plants and animals," said Krulder, who calls Caladesi his "favorite place in the world."
"It wouldn't develop the island. If anything, it'd protect it."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.