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Research park revives waterfront

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Julia Vail

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Ten years ago, visitors to the Jacksonville, N.C., waterfront would have seen a block of low-income housing, a landfill and a wastewater-treatment plant overlooking a murky bay.

Returning today, they would see an expanse of clear water flanked by boat docks and gazebos, with rows of townhouses and fishermen carting home their day’s catch.

These visitors would also see the catalyst for these changes: Sturgeon City, a park and research facility built where the old landfill and wastewater-treatment plant once stood.

“This is a wonderfully empowering project,” says Glenn Hargett, community affairs director for the City of Jacksonville. “The effort has provided significant impetus to increase the recreational use of water and provided a real base for economic development.”

Begun in 2000, Sturgeon City was created to support the idea that responsible environmental practices are compatible with economic growth.

On its 26-acre site, scientists research aquatic plants while students from schools across Onslow County learn about marine ecosystems.

The center holds after-school and summer programs for various age groups aimed at expanding knowledge of the environment, marine biology, and even art and music.

Since its inception, more than 1,800 students have participated.

“It’s educating our young people and our families and empowering them to make good civic choices,” says J.P. McCann, executive director of Sturgeon City.

Sturgeon City recently began the silent phase of a capital campaign to build Riverworks, a facility that will house its burgeoning research activities.

“It would facilitate civic and environmental education and research,” McCann says. “It would also provide a visitor space, which would be a great economic plus to the area.”

The campaign has received pledges of $4.1 million toward its $15 million goal, McCann says.

He says he hopes the facility is completed in the next five years.

Sturgeon City has an annual budget of $200,000. Its biggest supporters include the Marine Federal Credit Union, Wal-Mart, Jones-Onslow Electric Membership Corp., Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Brumbaugh, Mu & King.

The facility has made significant strides in its 10-year history.

In 1998, city officials determined the Wilson Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant, which pumped harmful materials into the bay for 40 years, was depleting local fish populations.

“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, discharging wastewater was the solution,” McCann says. “We’ve learned and evolved from that.”

The city closed the treatment facility, but still had to tackle the problem of what to do with the remaining structure.

At a town council meeting, residents decided against selling the property in favor of creating a center for recreation, education and scientific research.

“This is a unique partnership where the citizens spoke and the city listened,” Hargett says. “Here’s a community that said, ‘We want our river back.'”

Sturgeon City is home to researchers from a variety of universities.

As part of the Aquaculture Technology Transfer Program, scientists from N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington use the facility to raise southern flounder.

This project holds lessons not only for marine biologists, but also for economists and entrepreneurs.

Students at the Cameron School of Business at UNC-Wilmington are responsible for taking the fish to market and returning a profit.

“We look at the whole process holistically,” McCann says. “We’re promoting aquaculture and conservation, and creating leaders at the same time.”

Scientists from Elizabeth City State University and Antioch Community College in Maryland are studying and raising plants that can be transferred to coastal areas across the state.

“We’re not just a passive site where you come look at science,” McCann says. “We’re a working model.”

The research center and park have brought life back not only to the bay, but to the city as a whole. Sturgeon City, which is connected to the rest of the Jacksonville by a network of greenways, has brought an influx of tourists and visitors.

The effort owes everything to a community that cares about preserving aquatic plants and investing in the next generation of environmental stewards, McCann says.

“It was through the community that the roots of this project really took hold,” McCann says. “No pun intended.”

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