Cassoday Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has been scheduled to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for a new visitors center at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in central Kansas.
Kathleen Sebelius, former Kansas governor and now Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Gov. Mark Parkinson are also scheduled to attend the groundbreaking ceremony Friday for the park’s new visitor center and administrative offices.
Friday marks the preserve’s 14th anniversary as a national preserve. Construction is scheduled to start in the spring, according to The Wichita Eagle.
The $6 million cost of the new facilities is split between the state and the National Park Service. The state and the Nature Conservancy, which is the preserve’s primary landowner, shared the $450,000 cost for development of the plan.
The park has averaged about 20,000 visitors annually, far short of the 100,000 projected in 1996, when the 11,000-acre site was named a national park.
“Its brighter days are ahead,” said Alan Pollom, the Kansas director of the Nature Conservancy.
The park service is the primary manager of the preserve, although it shares that role with the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation group that owns 3 million acres nationally, including 48,000 in Kansas.
“With the visitor center and opening new trails, we could get it up to 35,000 a year pretty easily,” said Wendy Lauritzen, the National Park Service’s superintendent for the preserve. “But then it’s going to take a little bit more work to catch on.”
Park officials have also made other changes to draw visitors. The preserve stopped charging admission fees in 2009 and trails have been expanded from less than 15 miles to 41 miles. The preserve is also now open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Suzan Barnes opened Cottonwood Falls’ Grand Central Hotel and Grill nearby in 1995 in anticipation of attracting customers who visit Tallgrass. She said she hasn’t been disappointed, noting that her 10-room hotel is usually booked well in advance during the preserve’s peak season.
“The 100,000 was unrealistic,” she said. “I think what we’re getting is appropriate for the Flint Hills.”