Elected officials and staff members held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13 for Quest, the new educational center located at the Latta Nature Preserve. While the facility opened to the public in September, it is now preparing to begin hosting regular programming for children and adults alike, with the Carolina Raptor Center moving into the building sometime in early 2022.
Wednesday’s event was the culmination of a process that began with an agreement between Latta Nature Preserve, the Raptor Center and Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation in 2006, and was finalized by a bond referendum passed in 2008. Now the county is ready to open its 13,200-square-foot facility, which features three classrooms, a 6,200-gallon aquarium, indoor and outdoor exhibit space, a gift shop, and will eventually serve as a trailhead for a newly reconstructed Carolina Raptor Trail.
The Quest facility is expected to host thousands of school children each year, though there will be plenty of adult programming as well. November’s scheduled events for adults include an intro to kayaking, birding basics and intro to navigation, as well as hikes and nature walks at nearby Buckeye Cove Nature Preserve and Cowans Ford Wildlife Refuge.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner and longtime parks advocate Elaine Powell spoke at Wednesday’s event. As a representative for District 1, which includes Huntersville where Quest is located, Powell noted that Latta Nature Preserve is the closest county park to her house.
She emphasized the facility’s focus on water quality and conservation – the main exhibit hall is called Nothing Survives Without Water – while discussing the importance of environmentalism, education and interconnectivity.
“So many people are disconnected from nature now, and this is a beginning of how we provide the experience and educational opportunities to inspire wonder and awe,” Powell said. “It might not be your passion, but everyone deserves that opportunity to find out if it is their passion. And if we don’t understand the interconnectedness of why it’s important, we’ll fail at protecting our natural resources, and we can’t fail.”
Raptor Center still to come at Quest
Jim Warren, executive director of the Carolina Raptor Center, was brought on to that position in January 2006. Three months later, his organization was helping finalize the agreement to open a new educational facility at Latta.
Addressing the people sitting in Quest on Wednesday, Warren expressed his great relief that the project had finally come to fruition.
“Fifteen years of blood, sweat and tears,” Warren said. “I want to thank the county commissioners for your trust in us 15 years ago when you signed that letter of agreement and said it was good to go.”
Dr. Dick Brown and Deb Sue Griffin founded the Carolina Raptor Center in 1981 after Brown brought an injured broad-wing hawk into the basement of the biology building at UNC Charlotte, inspiring him to launch an organization that would rehabilitate injured and orphaned raptors as well as educate residents about environmental issues.
In 1984, the Raptor Center moved to the Latta Nature Preserve, where they now treat 900 to 1,000 birds a year in the Jim Arthur Raptor Medical Center, releasing nearly 70% of them back into the wild. The three-quarter-mile Raptor Trail and Edna S. Moretti Environmental Education Center welcomes over 35,000 visitors a year, while the organization’s science education programs reach more than 27,000 students a year in formal education settings.
While the Jim Arthur Raptor Medical Center will remain where it is, the Raptor Center will move its community engagement, education and administrative staff into the Quest building early next year.
The Raptor Center will then have access to the classrooms, built with state-of-the-art audio and visual technology, as well as whatever exhibits are showing on a given day and the large aquarium, a first for the county’s parks program.
Quest is also redesigning and reconstructing the Raptor Trail, according to a spokesperson with Park & Rec. The birds kept along the trail will be moved from their current quarters once construction is finished and the old Raptor Trail location will be returned to county management and restored to a natural area. Some rehabilitation structures will remain, but all display or education birds will find new homes behind Quest.
“Raptor rescue is where we started; this is the core of everything, this is our mission,” Warren said on Wednesday, “but our mission’s not just taking care of one bird at a time. As Elaine said, it’s connecting folks to nature.”
Plans for reopening ‘the other Latta’
Latta Nature Preserve, Carolina Raptor Center and Quest operate as wholly separate entities from the neighboring Historic Latta Plantation.
Also located on Sample Road in Huntersville, the old plantation site is technically located inside the preserve, but had been run by an organization called Historic Latta Place Inc. from its public opening in 1976 until June 2021, when public outcry involving a controversial program scheduled for Juneteenth weekend convinced the county not to renew that organization’s lease.
On Sept. 29, Park and Rec launched a survey soliciting community input to help with the development of programming and operations plans as the county assesses future partnerships and best practices for reopening the site.
The survey will run through Oct. 22, and all responses will remain anonymous, though they will become available upon the survey’s closing.
The Historic Latta site is a circa-1800 historic farm made up of 19 structures on 16 acres including a plantation house from the James Latta Plantation, cabins, outbuildings and more.
According to the county, Park and Rec staff have initiated conversations with community partners including museum professionals, local historians and experts in the interpretation of African-American experiences during the antebellum period. The project team is also reportedly consulting with scholars from around the country in order to ensure that next steps are informed by current research.
Quest at Latta Nature Preserve will host WFAE reporter David Boraks on Thursday, Oct. 21, for a Conservations Conversations event, at which he will discuss his in-depth reporting on the legacy of asbestos in Davidson.