Dinosaur National Monument gets $13.1M stimulus for new visitor center

At a glance

• Dinosaur National Monument will receive $13.1 million in stimulus funds to construct a new Quarry Visitor Center.

• The development is the most expensive of 30 projects in Colorado.

• Park officials said the monument lost $200,000 in each of the past three years because the existing visitor center had to be closed.

Northwest Colorado's windows to the past are about to get some new panes.

The National Park Service announced Wednesday that about 800 projects across the United States would receive more than $750 million in stimulus money.

Dinosaur National Monument will receive $13.1 million to construct a new Quarry Visitor Center.

The National Park Service plans to spend more than $33.6 million on 30 different projects in Colorado, and the Dinosaur visitor center is the most expensive.

When the original visitor center was built in 1957, it already had started falling apart before it opened in 1958, said Mary Risser, Dinosaur National Monument superintendent.

"It was constructed on bentonite shale, which is an expansive soil," Risser said. "Water caused the building to move and creek and crack and fall apart.

"In 2006, we had some monitoring done, and found some problems no one had known about. But it was virtually unsafe for people to be in, so we ended up closing it, instead of putting our employees or visitors at risk."

Patrick O'Driscoll, National Parks Intermountain Region public affairs spokesman, said closing the visitor center deprived guests of seeing one of Colorado's most famous natural resources.

"For nearly three years, the structure has been deemed unstable and dangerous," O'Driscoll said. "It stands over arguably the most famous dinosaur quarry in world and the best example anywhere of the Jurassic period.

"It's the original Jurassic park - it's an important place, and an important structure."

The Intermountain Region of the National Park Service, which covers eight states, has 180 projects approved for stimulus funding, O'Driscoll said.

"These are all projects that had been in the pipeline, and now we have a golden opportunity to move forward," he said. "It's an opportunity to create jobs, and it will benefit the parks and benefit the country."

Officials hope it has the added benefit of stimulating the national economy, he added.

Early next week, a geotechnical firm will survey the area where the new center will be built, Risser said.

"We've been doing a lot of work on it for the last couple of years since we closed," she said. "We've done a lot of necessary bureaucratic work (like) environmental impact statements, and we've been starting construction documents. (We) should be finished in August or September."

Risser said a construction contract would be awarded as soon as the construction documents are done.

"Depending on what type of winter we have, we could be breaking ground in March or April of next year," she said, adding the construction would last between 1 1/2 to two years, in time for a new visitor center to open in 2011.

Officials plan to demolish a large portion of the existing visitor center and build a new one about a quarter mile away, along with some administrative offices.

The north wall of the new center will be along the wall of the monument, so visitors can have an intimate look at the fossils.

"The north wall of the monument is 50 feet tall and 150 feet wide and contains 1,500 dinosaur bones," Risser said. "We'll be building more an exhibit hall than a visitors center. Guests will be able to go up a ramp to a mezzanine and look at fossils from a high level. They can take the stairs to the bottom of the wall for a different view."

Risser said the structure would be encased in translucent panels to allow natural light and panoramic views of the scenery.

Having a destination attraction should help the monument attract tourists again.

Closing the existing visitor center has reduced the number of visitors at the park each year drastically, Risser said.

"Closing the Quarry Visitor Center has affected every aspect of the park's operations," Risser said. "It went from about 300,000 visitors a year to 200,000 last year. Entrance fee revenue went from $300,000 a year to $100,000 last year."

As a result, the employees have had to take on expanded roles in a makeshift visitor center, she added.

"We had to move some of the existing exhibits and fossils, so people can still see them," she said. "It's had a big impact on a lot of what we are able to do."

O'Driscoll said the closed structure affected the local economy in western Moffat County because less people were visiting the park.

"It's a wonderful resource and folks couldn't get close to it or see it," he said. "It's the very thing that gave Dinosaur its name. This will help Dinosaur get its most important feature back."

And getting that feature back and allowing visitors to look at the fossils is important for the park, Risser said.

"It will be nice to get visitors in to see fossils again," she said. "It's the world's best window in to the Jurassic period."

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