APOLLO BEACH — Concrete pouring and installation of solar panels are the first visible signs of the second phase of a large expansion project at Tampa Electric Company’s Manatee Viewing Center at the far west end of Big Bend Road.
The Viewing Center is traditionally closed during the summer months and reopens Nov. 1 when manatees begin to gather near TECO’s Apollo Beach power plant to be in the warm waters generated by the plant.
“We took the opportunity during the closing to pave the parking lot with environmentally-sound permeable concrete, add a sidewalk through the parkinglot, and install eight more solar trees to power the Education Building at the Viewing Center,” said TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.
Adding eight solar panels will bring the number to 16, she added.
TECO staff plans to spend a day some time in October planting new landscaping at the Viewing Center. There is already an award-winning butterfly garden at the site.
Weather permitting, by the time the center reopens, there will be a walking trail that extends for almost a mile with explanatory nature plaques along the way.
The Viewing Center will continue to be a free attraction, Jacobs said.
TECO owns land on both sides of Dickman Drive between Big Bend and Noonan Branch roads and has begun other projects there as well, including two phases of wetland restoration on 24 acres south of the Viewing Center. This area surrounds TECO’s Community Area, which currently has a covered patio area for events and is the site of the annual Manatee Arts Festival.
Two weeks ago, youth from Dowdell Middle Magnet School in Tampa- a school that focuses on environmental education- planted native grasses in that area.
In April, TECO employees and their families had re-planted more than 8,000 native marsh grasses and plants as part of a partnership between TECO and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The project, called the Newman Branch Creek Fisheries Habitat Restoration Project, is on-going, and represents the first time the water management district’s Surface Water Improvement Management (SWIM) program has worked with a private landowner to conduct habitat restoration.
Earlier in the year, TECO agreed to place the parcel under a conservation easement to protect the fishery habitat. The salt marsh area had been channeled more than 60 years ago to prevent flooding, and much habitat was lost, Jacobs explained.
What is happening now is the second phase of the project.
The first phase began in 2007 at Newman Branch Creek (which crosses Noonan Branch and Dickman roads) to restore fresh water and brackish wetlands and re-establish the creek’s natural contours. The first phase of the project received the Environmental Project of the Year Award from the Hillsborough County Planning Commission in 2009.
The project was originally proposed by Ecosphere Restoration Institute Inc., a non-profit collaboration of biologists specializing in habitat restoration and management.
Ecosphere also got nearly $200,000 in funding for the second phase of the project now in progress through grants from SWFWMD, the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In September, the Florida Aquarium and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission formed a partnership with TECO for a conservation and technology park at the south end of the TECO-owned property.
About 200,000 people a year visit the Manatee Viewing Center, and hopes are high that many more than that will use the conservation park.
The park will feature both indoor and outdoor energy exhibits, including renewable energy alternatives; habitat and animal rescue programs and a saltwater fish hatchery.
“While the details of the park are still in the conceptual phase, the partnership’s vision is clearly focused on demonstrating the potential for technology and nature to work together harmoniously for the greater good of the community and the state,” Jacobs said.