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Dawning of a new Day at Reelfoot Lake: A new Interpretive Visitors Center designed by Lee Askew

By Brown Burnett

Reelfoot Lake State Park is “hopping” and they have numbers to prove it. 

“In 2012 we had 758 programs that 28,464 people attended,” said Alisha Weber, the park’s manager. “In 2013 we had 1,252 programs with more than 70,000 attending, and now we’re already ahead of last year’s pace.”

The number of pontoon cruises has doubled since last year, she continues, as has camping. Gift shop revenue has quadrupled. This past May, the park produced 286 programs and serviced 7,680 people, and that’s just the State Park. Reelfoot, located near Tiptonville in the northwestern corner of the State, also has “eagle tours” that take eagles and other birds into the community for demonstration usage in their educational programs. There were 25 of those tours scheduled in May for almost 2,000 people.

The lake itself has long been a tourist and regional visitor magnet. Formed in 1811-1812 by a series of earthquakes, the 15,000-acre body of water is the largest natural lake in Tennessee. It’s particularly famous for being a winter home to eagles, and every January and February photographers come from all over the world to photograph the majestic birds of prey. And now there are new park programs such as the Full Moon, Canoe Float, Reel Lake After Dark, holiday hikes, and pontoon cruises with island cookouts, to further energize the park’s diverse visitor offerings.

So why the jump in attendance, revenue and public interest?

“I’m pretty confident it's because of our Facebook page and social media resources,” says Weber. “That's free advertising and the word is spreading rapidly about our programs. For so long, Reelfoot Lake was perceived as just being a place for hunting and fishing. Now people are finding out that it’s also a place to hike, kayak, canoe and perhaps most importantly, to learn.”

A new Interpretive Visitors Center, scheduled to open in 2016, is expected to pump the visitor count numbers up even more. The $2 million project is being funded by a nonprofit organization, the Mississippi River Corridor – Tennessee (MRCT), with gran awards from the FHWA and TDOT’s Great River Road - National Scenic Byways Program and the State of Tennessee-General Services Division. TDEC State Parks also played a significant role in this unique partnership by providing the land and staff support needed for the project. The existing Museum and Visitors Center at Reelfoot has no had a major upgrade since the early 1960’s

Lee Askew, FAIA and major partner at ANF Architects based in Memphis, was selected to design the new center. The main structure will be built primarily from sustainable materials obtained from within the project area surrounding Reelfoot Lake,and the grounds will feature native landscaping created by Ritchie Smith Associates. A renowned designer, Kathy Kelley, has also joined the team and will be in charge of the interior and exterior interpretive exhibits. And finally, a truly unique architectural design has been chosen that will showcase one of Reelfoot’s most famous residents – the eagle.

“The center will actually resemble an eagle,” Askew says. “It will have two large wings of buildings that come up off a glass-enclosed main court. One wing will be an educational and learning center, and the other wing will feature a picnic area.”

The new center will connect to the older interpretive center with a covered walkway. It will also have a huge deck that goes out in closer proximity to the lake, affording visitors a spectacular, close-up view of the lake’s natural beauty, vegetation and wildlife, plus, of course, the eagles.

“Construction will start the first of next year and if all goes smoothly, we could be finished in a year or so,” Askew says. “It’s been a lot of fun designing this building.”

He also says the existing interpretative center will stay open and will be used as supplemental classroom and educational areas after the new structure is completed.

Weber came on board as the Manager of Reelfoot Lake State Parkin the spring of 2013. Before that, she worked more than 12 years a Natchez Trace State Park, located approximately 100 miles southwest of Reelfoot. “This is such a great place for photography and I'm heavily involved with our photography programs,” she said. “I love the lake, the birds …I love everything about this place.”

For more information about Reelfoot Lake State Park and its programs, call 731-253-9652 or visit their Facebook page

The Facts: LAKE COUNTY

Founded in 1870

Population – 7,731

Total area - 194 sq. miles

Named for Reelfoot Lake

Largest city/county seat – Tiptonville (pop. 4,409)

Posted by Eli Cloud at 3:03 PM
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