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Despite Outcry, Nature Center Construction Will Go Forward : Building: Critics say Catalina Island already has such a center. The $1.3-million facility is wasteful, they say, in light of a recent boost in cost of paramedic services.

October 27, 1994|JAMES BENNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most times, county plans to build parks or other public facilities draw praise from local communities.

But on Catalina Island, plans for a $1.3-million nature center have many residents and local officials fuming. They say they already have a nature center at the botanical gardens and another one is the last thing they need, especially after county officials recently increased the cost of paramedic services on the island.

Many have written letters to the island's newspapers and called their county representative to complain. "It's a waste of money," said Avalon Mayor Ralph J. Morrow Jr.

"I just don't think it's needed," said Councilman Scott D. Nelson.

But whether or not the 3,200-square-foot interpretive center is needed, it will be built: Construction began Wednesday.

Funds for the project will come from Proposition A, a 1992 county bond measure that raised millions of dollars to restore parks, acquire wildlife habitat and improve public piers. It specifically called for the interpretive center on Catalina.

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Voters approved the project before the county drastically increased rates for the county's paramedic and bay-watch services on the island. Avalon had been paying $46,000 annually for the county services, but last year the county boosted the cost to $300,000 a year, a fee island officials say the city of Avalon can barely afford.

Paramedic services are critical on Catalina because the island community cannot turn to a private ambulance service or another city's service for help, island officials say. The county provides four paramedics in Avalon who respond to calls throughout the island. Many would rather see the money for the nature center help fund those services.

But county officials say that can't happen: When voters approved the bond measure, they specifically signed off on construction of the island's interpretive center.

So residents' pleas that they already have a history museum and botanical gardens fall on deaf ears. As do their suggestions for other ways to spend the money.

"$1 million would go a long way on the repair of the road from Two Harbors to Avalon, which at this time is worse than I have ever seen it," Maureen Oudin of Two Harbors wrote to the local newspaper. "Doesn't the county library fall under the heading of 'recreation?' "

And nothing will come of Nelson's claims that the money could be better spent making City Hall more accessible to the handicapped or for a senior citizens center.

"I understand their point of view," said Rod Cooper, county Parks and Recreation Department director. "But the law has been set up so I have to administer the project. It was passed by the voters, so I have no options."

The center, scheduled to be completed next spring, is designed to educate visitors. It will feature displays on the island's history, geology, nature and artifacts, said county projects manager Sandra Fiorenza.

County officials say they are doing their best to please the island's 3,300 residents.

The county recently agreed to add a public meeting room to the center to accommodate the island's clubs and community groups. And officials say they met with island representatives to determine the best location for the center, which is being built in Avalon Canyon near the city of Avalon.

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