Whizzing along U.S. 17 from North Carolina, it's easy to overlook the sign welcoming you to Virginia.
You might not know the trees to your left mark the edge of a vast federally protected wilderness, or that a historic, man-made canal runs parallel to the road. You might also miss that between you and the waterway is a miles-long paved trail created from an old highway.
There's very little to draw your attention to these attractions.
But a triangular piece of land about 10 miles from the state line could change that.
The city plans to evaluate a roughly 2-acre plot next to the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail in southern Chesapeake to see if it's a good fit for a visitor center. The feasibility study costs nearly $36,000 and would take roughly four weeks.
Located at the north trailhead off George Washington Highway, what’s envisioned is a joint facility shared by the city and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which would buy the property and build the center.
It’s a decades-old plan that may be inching closer to reality — one that advocates say will highlight the historical, natural and recreational resource of the federally protected Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge just across the canal and draw tourists traveling into the area along U.S. 17.
No good idea ever goes away, said Chris Lowie, refuge manager since 2007. He foresees a roughly 12,000-square-foot facility that features exhibits and interpretative displays, as well as classroom and meeting space, with offices for refuge and city staff and a gift shop.
There’s about $490,000 available to buy the property, according to Lowie. Construction could cost as much as $8 million, but no funds have been allocated for that yet, officials said.
Lowie said it’s not just about getting people on the refuge, but outreach and awareness as well.
“It’s about getting people to hear our message,” he said, and an opportunity to educate visitors about the swamp as well as the national wildlife refuge system. The agency has no presence there now, he added. Its headquarters are on the other side of the swamp in rural Suffolk.
The canal, an alternate route along the Intracoastal Waterway, and paved trail already are widely used by cyclists, walkers, joggers, horseback riders and boaters, officials say. But the center could draw in the average tourist, offering a nice place for a stroll, or simply a bathroom break, Lowie said. They estimate as many as 400,000 visitors a year, he added.
“It’ll be busy,” said Mike Barber, Chesapeake's director of parks, recreation and tourism. A counter at the north trailhead entrance tracked more than 49,000 vehicles entering the park from March 2017 to April 2018, but even more people — as many as 750,000 — are estimated to access the trail from other points of entry, according to Barber.
The refuge was established by the federal government in 1974. Incorporating about 113,000 acres in Chesapeake, Suffolk and three North Carolina counties, it’s the remnant of a vast habitat that once covered more than 1 million acres of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The swamp is home to one of the largest populations of black bears on the East Coast, as well as endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and canebrake rattlesnake. Hundreds of birds and butterflies have been documented there along with a variety of other mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Lake Drummond, one of only two natural freshwater lakes in the state, sits like a blue heart in the middle of all that green.
“It's a very compelling story to tell," said Councilwoman Debbie Ritter, a longtime supporter. The property evaluation is the first of many steps, she added. It should begin by the end of the month, according to Barber.
The idea of a visitor center dates to the mid-1970s, according to Pilot archives. A 1979 study recommended greater public access to the refuge with visitor centers at Suffolk and Chesapeake entrances. The plan was reiterated more than 25 years later in another report, which suggested it be built along U.S. 17 and incorporated into the city's 8.3-mile-long canal trail.
That 2006 conservation document envisioned a facility that would "inspire visitors to get out onto the refuge."
The property poses some challenges — it’s a weird shape, Barber said — but it's got potential.
And while there’s no funding yet for the center, Lowie said you can't build anything without a piece of land.
“We’ve got to get a place we can call home.”