MILTON — Fabien Cousteau expressed his support for the Gulf Coast Discovery Center in a video for the Santa Rosa County Commission meeting Monday.
Cousteau, who founded the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center, is the oldest grandson of famed ocean explorer and conservationist, Jacques Cousteau.
“Given the natural beauty of Navarre Beach as an ecotourism destination, the Gulf Coast Discovery Center will be a centerpiece for marine science education,” the third generation ocean explorer said. “I look forward to the opportunity to work with Northwest Florida and Marine EDGE to make the Gulf Coast Discovery Center a huge success.”
But the five-member Santa Rosa County Commission made it clear they would not allocate money for the proposed marine center.
Charlene Mauro, founder and director of the Northwest Florida Marine Education and Discovery of Gulf Ecosystems (EDGE), met Cousteau in person. For five years, Mauro has dedicated her life to creating an estimated $10 million marine center at the beach that would be unmatched in Northwest Florida.
Mauro has taught Pensacola State College and high school students about the beach environment for years. About a dozen former and current students wore hot pink T-shirts in the Santa Rosa board chambers to show their support for Mauro’s vision.
“I’m disappointed I do not have your support,” Mauro told commissioners.
Even if other funding became available, Mauro said: “I’m not putting any more time into this effort. I’m done.”
Instead, a majority of commissioners spoke in favor of $30 million wastewater treatment projects at Navarre Beach and Milton. Navarre Beach dumps treated sewage into the Santa Rosa Sound, while the North Santa Rosa Regional Water Reclamation Facility in Milton releases wastewater into Blackwater Bay. They said those projects would improve water quality.
“I’m always supportive of the marine center, we just need to put the brakes on it right now,” said District 2 commissioner Bob Cole, who suggested the proposal be brought back in a year or two.
Sam Griffin, a University of West Florida student majoring in biology, voiced his support for Mauro’s marine facility proposal before commissioners turned it down.
“We care about the environment,” Griffin said of his age group. “We’re eager to see the project proceed.”
The Gulf Coast Discovery Center would have been located at Navarre Beach on the Santa Rosa Sound. The main 8,600-square-foot facility was designed to include exhibits on moon jellies, Atlantic octopi and live reef habitat in a 15,000-gallon aquarium. Remote operated vehicles would have allowed visitors to explore the reef.
Two additional buildings on the site would have included administration offices, classrooms and even more exhibits. Meanwhile, outside would have featured a viewing deck, natural exhibits looking at bird nesting areas, for example, and covered outdoor classrooms.
Caldwell Associates architect Michael Crawford, who helped design the Gulf Coast Discovery Center, described the facility as “exciting”and a “landmark” along the Northwest Florida coast during his presentation to commissioners. He said the construction would have been completed in phases.
“It would be an interactive and have hands-on experience,” Crawford said. “It would be unique to this area.”
A defeated Mauro said, though, immediately after the county meeting ended: “I love teaching whether or not we have a discovery center.”