What was initially scheduled to be a $300,000 Nebraska Game & Parks Commission headquarters at Lake McConaughy is now a $2.5 million Lake McConaughy Visitor/Water Interpretive Center, representing a unique public-private partnership.
The expanded project to a Visitor/Water Center resulted from the foresight of Keith County farmer Tom Plummer Jr., later chairman of the Game & Parks Commission, who first proposed expanding the facility in 1997. He believed that if private funds could be raised, the facility could serve as a visitor center and the state’s first water museum.
Noting that the $300,000 in Game & Parks Commission funds for the facility came from park user fees, not tax dollars, Plummer spearheaded formation of a Friends of the Big Mac Committee that sought grants, in-kind services and donations from foundations, businesses, organizations, individuals and public entities.
After raising $154,500 in local funds, the group received a matching $154,500 grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development’s Travel and Tourism Division.
“Once we had that grant, we knew we would be successful,” Plummer said. To date, $2.2 million has been raised with another $300,000 to be raised for interpretive displays.
Today the 9,000 sq. ft. facility includes the Game & Parks Commission headquarters, offices and visitors center, offices for Central Nebraska Public Power & Irrigation District, a public meeting room provided by the Central District (which also provided a 10-acre site and a 35-acre buffer zone), a $230,000 aquarium provided by Cabela’s of Sidney, a 50-seat state-of-the-art theater provided by the Ethel S. Abbott Charitable Foundation, a gift shop, public restroom and the water interpretive center.
Perched on a bluff one-quarter mile south of Kingsley Dam overlooking Lake McConaughy, the water center is located about eight miles northeast of Ogallala on Nebraska Highway 61.
Jim Carney, regional manager of the Commission’s Parks Division, described the water center as “a living educational facility” which will include changing displays by school children and professionally prepared exhibits.
Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) provided the $300,000 centerpiece exhibit, an interactive display that features a 24-foot-long scale model map of Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming showing the resources of the Platte River system. Displays will include water for power, water for food, water for communities, water for wildlife, and water for fish and recreation. The NPPD display features both a three-minute or 15-minute display on sharing water in the Platte River Basin. Another five-minute video depicts the history of the construction of Kingsley Dam, which at that time was the world’s second-largest earthen dam.
One exhibit features the first and probably the only diving bell (built in 1946) and used in Nebraska to inspect the outlet structures. The display includes the pumping device used to pump air down to the diver.
The Nebraska Environmental Trust was another instrumental partner in the construction wing of the water center.
Examples of in-kind or other donations include the Nebraska Well Drillers Association that drilled wells for a heat pump system, the Nebraska Department of Roads Recreation Road Fund that paved the parking lot, and Chief Industries of Grand Island that provided flags and a bronze eagle sculpted by Nebraska sculptor Fred Hoppe. A $40,000 contribution came from the Thomas D. Buckley Trust of Chappell and a $25,000 contribution came from the Nebraska Game & Parks Foundation.
Plummer and his education committee raised another $100,000 for a permanent endowment for the interpretive and educational wing.
Mitch Gerstenkorn, Game & Parks superintendent at Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area said the benefits of the facility are two-fold. “Before, we had no welcoming area—no visitor center—at the state’s largest recreational area and now we even have an off-season attraction.”
The Nature Conservancy, Central Nebraska Public Power & Irrigation District and the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission are among public entities that have held meetings at the water center, as has the Ogallala/Keith County Chamber of Commerce. Schools have held field trips, watch films, videos and programs there, too. Popular programs include how the dam was built, nature studies, and boating safety.
One of the most unique programs held to date was an interactive satellite program beamed in from Alaska by a former Ogallala science teacher who was working on a biological study she was conducting there.
Nebraska Game & Parks Commission Assistant Director Roger Kuhn called the project “a great partnership” between public and private entities.
Ogallala/Keith County Chamber of Commerce officials have welcomed the new Lake McConaughy Water Center as an additional attraction for the tourist-oriented area, complementing the state’s largest lake, the state’s largest dam, the state’s largest hydroelectric plant and the Central District’s eagle-viewing facility.