The refuge set grand opening dates twice but since May 23 has waited on approval of a final building permit from the Santa Rosa County. That’s because it changed its plans to allow the rehabilitation center to control the temperature in each room to provide better care to the 153 species of animals that live in Northwest Florida.

HOLLEY — Bill Andersen worked Wednesday to complete a sixth habitat for its animal ambassador, Riley the striped skunk.

“We’re going to have a very happy skunk on our hands,” said Anderson, as he left a growing tree for it to play on.

It is part of the new $1 million digs for the popular Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge being built on a wooded 2.3-acre parcel in Holley just north of Navarre off State Road 87. The refuge rehabilitates and releases injured or orphaned wildlife indigenous to Northwest Florida. It also responds to strandings of marine life along an 85-mile stretch of Gulf Coast beaches.

Plans call for two more than 2,000-square-foot buildings for education and outreach and for rehabilitation. It will include 23 habitats total, mostly for the wildlife refuge’s ambassadors, which are animals too injured or too dependent on people to live in the wild.

Bill and his wife, Carol, who goes by the nickname “Stormy,” donated the land, which is part of their 6-acre property that includes access to East Bay.

The wildlife refuge has outgrown the aging and cramped fire station on Okaloosa Island that it has used the past eight years to treat up to 2,000 animals annually.

Stormy Andersen, the refuge’s executive director, said she’s excited about opening the new place sometime in the fall. She likes that it has huckleberry, blueberry, persimmon, scuppernong and pear plants that can be used to feed the animals.

“I enjoy being in nature,” she said. “Everything feels right. There is an amazing sense of freedom out here. It’s better than being in a concrete jungle.”

The refuge set grand opening dates twice but since May 23 has waited on approval of a final building permit from Santa Rosa County. That’s because it changed its plans to allow the rehabilitation center to control the temperature in each room to provide better care to the 153 species of animals that live in Northwest Florida.

Now they hope to open in the fall.

“It’s taking an awful long time,” Andersen said of the permitting process.

Additionally, Andersen said the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge must still raise $255,000 so it can open debt free. Local builders have donated lots of leftover material from their projects, and other entities such as Santa Rosa County and Impact 100 also have contributed to the new facilities.

Both the education and outreach building and rehabilitation center sit as empty shells, with rooms framed by steel beams. However, on a tour of the new grounds, Andersen described where various activities will occur and how things will look.

Annually, the refuge educates about 5,000 schoolchildren and others from “6 months old to 106 years old,” Andersen said.

For the first time, the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge will have a gift shop. The education and outreach building will have a mural on its walls of the various animals it cares for and the ceiling will be painted a sky blue. Ropes will guide people around the grounds. Signage will identify various plants. It also plans signage for the animals in each habitat.

Outside and inside windows in the rehabilitation center will have one-way film that allows people to watch what goes on in a room but animals cannot see out. Generally, the rehabilitation center will be off limits to the public.

The refuge also will have an isolation room to put contagious animals, and pre-op, operation and post-op spaces. Also for the first time, a space has been set aside for the staff to perform necropsies on stranded marine animals.

Andersen said she would like to raise money to eventually outfit its operating room and provide an X-ray machine.

“We fell in love with this land 25 to 30 years ago,” she said. “We didn’t want it to be developed. But we decided it was a shame not to share it with somebody else. It's a great opportunity for everybody.”