A new era began for the University of Florida's School of Forest Resources and Conservation April 6 as ground was broken for the Austin Cary Forest Learning Center, a 7,800-square-foot education and outreach complex in the heart of the UF-owned forest northeast of Gainesville.
The learning center will succeed and surpass the Austin Cary Forest Conference Center, destroyed by fire in July 2011. Fundraising and recovery efforts began immediately after the fire, and at the groundbreaking event, UF Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources Jack Payne expressed awe at their rapid progress.
"I never thought we'd be here two years later," said Payne, who noted the importance of forest products to the state's economy -- $15 billion and 90,000 jobs. Speaking to a crowd of about 400 supporters, he discussed the Austin Cary Forest's role as an essential link between natural resources and agriculture, and the role that pine trees may play in providing more of the world's biofuel and fiber needs.
Construction for the learning center is slated to begin immediately and should be completed in less than one year, SFRC Director Tim White told attendees. The learning center will greatly enhance the school's ability to provide distance education from Austin Cary Forest and accommodate large in-person events there, he said.
"This is a community resource, not anSFRC resource," White said. "Tell people we want it to be used."
He expressed hope that the learning center would be used extensively for activities such as continuing education, Extension and youth programs.
The groundbreaking was part of the school's annual Spring Celebration, a weekend reunion for anyone who's had significant contact with SFRC and its programs over the years. Students, alumni, current and former personnel, academic colleagues, industry figures, donors and government officials were represented at the event, demonstrating the breadth of the school's support.
Alumnus Jack Vogel, who chaired the development committee responsible for the fundraising, told the crowd that the "family atmosphere" in SFRC and the forest products industry virtually guaranteed the committee's success from the outset.
Among the donors recognized at the ceremony was a special group of six known as Learning Center Founders, each of whom provided a gift of $50,000 or more. They are:
Florida Farm Bureau Federation
Harold and Juanita Mikell
Wayne Smith and Mitzi Austin
Vam and E.T. York
Afterward, White recognized donors who'd made contributions of $25,000 to $50,000, the Learning Center Leaders. They are:
F&W Forestry Services Inc.
Florida Forest Service
Eley C. Frazer III
Ralph and Kathy Jowett
Jack and Jeanie Vogel
V. E. Whitehurst and Sons Inc.
Leonard and Sharyl Wood
All donors will be acknowledged on the Appreciation Wall in the learning center's Main Gallery.
The building fund is still soliciting contributions, said event organizer Scott Sager, an SFRC education coordinator and forester. The reason: Projected costs have exceeded the original $1.5 million estimate and now sit at $1.8 million.
"We're moving forward and I'm sure this event will create even more excitement about the project," Sager said.
That sentiment was echoed by one attendee, John Hoblick, president and CEO of the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, one of the Learning Center Founders.
Hoblick said FFBF made a major donation to the project because the organization has such a significant, long-term relationship with the SFRC.
"It's wonderful that the community has come together like this," he said. "It just goes to show you, when there's hard times, the Florida ag community comes together."
In the coming months, SFRC supporters can track the learning center's progress at http://sfrc.ufl.edu/learning_center/.