By ANNE HOLLIDAY
WESB/WBRR News Director
Ground was broken this morning for the new visitor center at Kinzua Bridge State Park, and Senator Joe Scarnati says the center is an important cog in the machine that’s putting this part of the state back together.
He said to say the northwest region of the state has suffered economically recently would be an understatement.
“It’s been a tough time,” Scarnati said, “but it’s all of these great attractions that is only going to enhance” the area by bringing in more visitors, more business for local shopkeepers, and the opportunity for more jobs.
“This state park is a crown jewel in our state park system,” he said.
Scarnati also said having a year round visitor center was the right way to go.
During the ceremony before the groundbreaking, several people talked about their memories of the bridge before a tornado toppled part of it in 2003.
State Rep. Kathy Rapp said her grandfather used to take her to the bridge when she was a little girl. St. Marys Mayor Robert Howard, who didn’t speak during the ceremony, told WESB his Eagle Scout project involved making improvements to the park. DCED Deputy Secretary Carolyn Boser Newhouse told the crowd her husband proposed to her on the bridge back in 1987.
“He’ll tell you when he was walking out to the center he wasn’t sure if he was going to propose or throw me over,” she said.
Almost all the speakers mentioned the relentless efforts of Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau executive director Linda Devlin in getting, and keeping, everyone on the right track.
Mayor Howard compared Kinzua visitor center to the Elk Country Visitor Center in Benezette that has brought in hundreds of thousands of visitors since it opened. Within the first four months of its opening in September of 2010, more than 51,000 visitors from 46 states and 16 countries went to the Elk Country center. Howard, who grew up in Mount Jewett, said there’s no reason the new visitor center shouldn’t show similar numbers.
DCNR Secretary Ellen Ferretti said already, even without the visitor center, 158,000 people visit Kinzua Bridge State park every year.
Rapp noted how many people attend the Kinzua Bridge Festival every year (16,000 last year – including two Sasquatch, according to Mary Ann Burggraff of the Kinzua Bridge Foundation) and said the first year after the Sky Walk she could hardly get into the park because of all the traffic.
“That was really exciting to see, that people were coming back to this park, because I remember the joy of coming here with my grandfather.”
Rapp also said you can still see license plates from everywhere in the United States when you’re visiting. “This is vital to McKean County,” she said.
McKean County Commissioner Joe DeMott talked about some of the bridge’s history and jokingly said maybe it could be repeated.
The original bridge, he said, was built in 94 days.
“If we get started this afternoon,” he said to much laughter, “late November we should have this building up and running.
The $6.9 million project is scheduled be finished in fall of next year and will include two exhibit halls, classrooms and much more.
State Rep. Marty Causer said the visitor center is an investment for the area in more than one way.
“This is an investment in our one state park (in McKean County). It’s an investment in our future by focusing on education,” he said, adding that he’s excited about the exhibits “because it really will educate people about our history, where we came from and where we’re headed.”
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