It's taken more than a decade of work, but the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, which officials hope will drive both conservation and tourism, is open.
A Thursday-morning grand opening featured speakers including city and county leaders, Gov. Phil Bryant and the National Audubon Society president.
"A place like this is going to become part of the fabric of the community," said National Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold.
He envisioned a young girl who becomes fascinated with wildlife while visiting the Center, goes on to become an avian biologist and "makes the world a better place." Or a young boy who, inspired by exhibits at the Center, goes into public policy. The Audubon Center could become a space for wedding receptions and community events, he said.
"That's what you're making possible here," he said.
The $2.3 million structure, made of cypress and glass and flooded with light, is on 10 acres of wooded property. Outside the building is a children's nature play garden, a hummingbird and butterfly garden, native meadowland, a rain garden, the historic scout hut and a hide for viewing birds.
A kayak launch allows access to Rhodes Bayou and the greater Pascagoula River. A tidal marsh restoration portion of the property is being developed as a living laboratory for this approach to restoration.
Inside the 5,000-square-foot building is the Pascagoula River Room, highlighting the river's history. The Moss Point Fine Art Gallery will spotlight the work of local, regional and national nature-based artists. The gallery is available for rent.
Officials said the Center will serve as a focal point for restoration efforts as well as a tourist draw that will bring visitors who then put money into Moss Point's and Jackson County's economy. Thirty-two states have Audubon Centers. This is the second one in Mississippi.
"You have laid the foundation for future conservation," Mayor Billy Broomfield said. "This is a win for our city, a win for school districts across the Gulf Coast, a win for the great state of Mississippi."
Bryant made note of a magnolia tree on the property.
"It's representative of Mississippi, a strong and sturdy tree. But it needs tending. Because if you're not careful you can find it neglected," he said. "But not here.
"I've been to a lot of openings on the Coast and I've enjoyed every one. But here today, we stand in a new ecotourism system made by our Creator."
Events planned for this weekend at the Audubon Center, at 5107 Arthur St., start Friday with a nature painting workshop with Don Smith at 10 a.m., a nature photography workshop with Robert Smith at 2 p.m., and the opening of the Nature Art Gallery at 6 p.m.
Saturday will be family day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with hands-on crafts and activities.