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Monticello • By some estimates, 2 million travelers pass through this one-time uranium boomtown near Utah's southeastern corner, tooling along U.S. Highway 191 on the way to somewhere else. With the opening of the $8 million Canyon Country Discovery Center, they will have a reason to pause and learn about science, nature and the Colorado Plateau.
In the works for more than a decade, the science center is the new home for the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education, founded by Janet Ross here more than 30 years ago.
More important than driving tourists to area businesses, the new center promotes wider understanding of one of the world's most stunning landscapes, Ross said during a tour of the 16,200-square-foot building. It features classrooms, a small conference center, a climbing wall and a round kivalike room filled with interactive displays demonstrating such natural phenomenon as wind dynamics, magnetic fields, color theory, time warps and the geological underpinnings of the Colorado Plateau.
Ross dedicated a storytelling room to her mother, Sari, a professional storyteller from Durango, Colo., who died this year. The seat of honor is a high-back chair made by Bluff artist Joe Pachak. Embedded in the entrance floor is a map of the Colorado Plateau.
The discovery center celebrates its grand opening Saturday with family-friendly activities, Native American cultural demonstrations and music, including bluegrass and folk bands. John Herrington, the nation's first astronaut of Native American heritage, will offer keynote remarks and flautist R. Carlos Nakai and his quartet will headline the evening's musical program.
Rising behind the center are the 27 massive turbines of the new Latigo Wind Park, which dominates the Monticello skyline while pumping power into Rocky Mountain Power's electrical grid. The grounds have been landscaped into a nature play park, pavilions offer shade for learners and picnickers, 2 miles of trails course through the 48-acre property and an observatory with a 14-foot dome offers views into star-laden night skies.
The idea for the center originated with Bill Boyle, the civic-minded publisher of the San Juan Record newspaper. In the 1990s, the Utah governor's office proposed a science center in the town of Escalante as a way to capitalize on the newly created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But the town's residents, who resented the surprise monument designation, had no interest in the project.
Boyle saw such a center as a good fit for Monticello and pitched the idea to Ross in 2001.
Ross, 62, said the school started out by providing guiding services and raft trips on the San Juan River, but soon it moved into professional development for teachers, service projects and science education. Today, its mission is to support "lifelong learning experiences about the Colorado Plateau for people of all ages and backgrounds through education, service, adventure and conservation programs."
Ross led a capital campaign that raised $12 million. Some of the money came from familiar philanthropic Utah families such as the Eccleses and Dumkes, but large gifts also came from billionaire conservationists, such as Hansj√∂rg Wyss, a Swiss-born entrepreneur who sits on the boards of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Grand Canyon Trust.
With an operating budget of $2.4 million and a staff of 30, the new center is among the biggest employers in town.
Still, not everyone welcomes the center, fearing it is too closely associated with the conservation initiatives many in San Juan County see as a threat to their way of life. An early partner in the project, San Juan County withdrew its support a few years ago.
Some worry such an attraction would put Monticello on an economic track similar to that followed by another former uranium boomtown 55 miles to the north. While Moab has become one of the New West's busiest and increasingly chaotic destinations, Monticello has remained a sleepy hamlet, despite its proximity to the Abajo Mountains, world-class climbing at Indian Creek and archaeological marvels. Other than playing golf or going to the Mormon temple, there's not much for visitors to do in Monticello.
"Nobody in this building wants Monticello to be like Moab," said Chris Giangreco, the center's marketing director. "We view that as the mistake. We don't want this place flooded with Jeeps and bikes and people in the streets at all hours."
But it does open new possibilities, said Giangreco, who anticipates 35,000 people will visit per year.
"The purpose for this project is to reach economic development for the county and get some of the traffic flooding Moab to come down here," he said. "We are 45 minutes away, 20 degrees cooler and a heck of a lot less expensive."
Boyle agrees the science center could help put Monticello on a sustainable economic footing without disrupting established land uses.
"It's one piece in the puzzle, not the only piece. We need to continue to build a balanced economy," Boyle said. "We want to retain traditional ranching, extraction, tourism, oil and gas. It's piece of the puzzle, and it's a nice piece. It's smack-dab in the middle of Colorado Plateau, the most beautiful place in the world."
1117 N. Main St., Monticello
Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Friday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sunday and Monday: closed
Admission: $9 for adults; $6 for kids 12 and under; $7 seniors; $2 off for local residents
Grand opening celebration Aug. 20 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Keynote speaker: astronaut John Herrington
Musical guest: R. Carlos Nakai Quartet