HOLLEY — After spending the past eight years in a cramped and aging concrete jungle that once served as an Okaloosa Island fire station, the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge finally plans to move to an outdoor, forested 2.3-acre site on East Bay.
Carol and Bill Andersen actually own the six acres in Holley, near Navarre, that will become the new home of the refuge, which is celebrating its 25th year rehabilitating and releasing the injured or orphaned 153 wildlife species indigenous to Northwest Florida.
Carol “Stormy” Andersen can barely contain her excitement about moving Nov. 10 to its new campus in Holley, just north of Navarre. Both the Okaloosa and Santa Rosa County Sheriffs’ Offices plan to escort the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge and its animals about 20 miles along U.S. Highway 98 and State Road 87 to its new location on Cloptons Circle near Billory Baptist Church.
The Andersens’ envisioned relocating three years ago. After two delays since it originally said it would move May 23, the wildlife they care for will finally be introduced to their new habitats.
“Moving the animals in our care to such a peaceful environment in buildings and habitats specifically designed for them, and our human visitors, is a dream come true,” said Andersen, the executive director of the nonprofit organization.
Plans for the estimated $1 million site call for two buildings, each more than 2,000 square feet. One will serve as an education and outreach center to visitors, while the other will be a medical clinic to rehabilitate the nearly 2,000 animals it takes in annually.
It also plans to have 23 habitats total, mostly for the wildlife refuge’s ambassadors, or animals too injured or too dependent on people to live in the wild. These include Riley the striped skunk, Landlord the gopher tortoise, Mini the eastern screech owl and others.
While ECWR still needs about $222,000 in donations to complete the facilities and habitats, Bill Andersen remains optimistic the money will be raised. Hurricanes, the rise in the cost of construction material and labor have contributed to the increased price tag for the project, he said.
“Two years ago, when we started this process of designing and building this campus, we faced about $850,000 in unfunded expenses,” said Bill, the director emeritus, “I’m confident that our partners and citizens will step up and invest in building ECWR’s future, which is unique in the entire United States.”
A grand opening is scheduled at 9 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7 at the new ECWR campus. It will include a flag raising, honoring of World War II vets and appearance by the Navarre Junior ROTC. Carol pointed out many military veterans, current service members, and wounded warriors serve as volunteers and she is a retired U.S. Air Force veteran. Additionally, the grand opening plans to include live music, animal ambassador talks and presentations, tours of the grounds and facilities, food trucks, and conservation-themed items and art for sale at the gift shop.
“We’re excited, the community is excited, we can’t wait to get this three-year project across the finish line,” said Mitch Robbins, the organization’s president.
“What began as a thought bubble and dream in December 2016 will become reality for ECWR and Santa Rosa County this December, thanks to the overwhelming support of citizens, businesses, and Santa Rosa County officials,” Carol said. “It’s hard to express how grateful we are for that support.”
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