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Visitor, education building planned for Penn Dixie fossil site in Hamburg Town Board told of funding needs

The Penn Dixie fossil site, at a former shale quarry in Hamburg, revealed plans to build a spacious visitors center -- providing that it can dig up the $1.8 million construction cost.

"There'll be no rock left unturned when we get done," said Jerold C. Bastedo, executive director of the Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Education Center.

Bastedo displayed architects' drawings for the 10,600-square-foot building to the Hamburg Town Board on Monday and outlined plans for construction.

Fossil hunters from around the country, and the world, have put the former quarry on the map as a visitor hot-spot, he said. The 54-acre site drew 78,000 last year, coming from 36 states and six countries.

The nonprofit group that operates the natural history site plans to formally announce the building project at a fundraiser on Nov. 6. The site currently lacks a building to house teaching programs and accommodate visitors.

"It's an ambitious project, but it's moving forward," Bastedo said. In addition to soliciting corporate and public sector donors, the group will offer to put members' names on the building for donations of $1,000 each, he said.

The fossil center near Big Tree and Bay View roads began 15 years ago -- or 380 million years ago, depending on how you look at it.

The Hamburg Natural History Society was formed in 1993 to preserve the paleontological find, unearthed in the 1960s when the Penn Dixie Cement Co. removed about 10 feet of shale for use as an aggregate in cement.

The exposed shale, once the muddy bottom of the sea near the equator of the ancient earth, holds a rich vein of Devonian-era fossils -- the remains of Trilobites and other long-extinct sea life.

To keep the industrially zoned area from being reburied with asphalt, the Town of Hamburg donated land to the natural history group, which later bought more land to add to the site.

At the Penn Dixie center, visitors can pay $6 to walk the 3,000 feet of nature trails and dig their own fossils at one end of the site. Visitors can keep their finds, contrary to the practice at most fossil sites. The cen
ter operates programs in paleontology -- the study of prehistoric life -- and in ornithology and astronomy, with the help of telescopes shielded from city lights by the ring of trees that surround the site.

The Natural History Society envisions a visitor center with a meeting room for up to 120 people, a seismograph station to monitor movements in the earth's crust, plus restrooms and other amenities. Construction could begin in April, Bastedo said.

"One of the things we want to do with this building is operate a green design, which can be very expensive," he said. Plans call for two 60-foot windmills to provide electricity, and to serve as a demonstration of renewable energy for visitors. "The wind out there never stops," he said.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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