MINT HILL — After more than a decade of planning, public input, engineering and construction, Stevens Creek Nature Preserve and accompanying nature center will finally welcome visitors this fall.
The preserve spans 281 acres owned by Mecklenburg County and includes a 12,000-square-foot nature center at 15700 Thompson Road in Mint Hill. It features a network of pedestrian trails and exhibits that teach visitors about stream ecology and stormwater management.
The plan for Stevens Creek preserve and nature center was put out in the public realm as early as 2007, but placed on the back burner once the recession hit. It was reenergized in 2015 and construction began three years later.
Crews are working on installing the exhibits inside the nature center. Once finished, Stevens Creek will be the county’s fourth nature preserve, joining Reedy Creek, Latta and McDowell.
“It’s been good steady progress,” said Chris Matthews, county park and recreation division director of nature preserves and natural resources. “We had some weather slow-ups and of course, COVID slowed things down. We had a really wet year last year that slowed down the building process.”
Protecting a habitat
The preserve is located along Stevens Creek, which is considered to be a critical habitat for the federally endangered Carolina Heelsplitter.
According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the creek provides habitat for one of only six known populations of this rare mussel. However, it doesn’t live there anymore due to erosion caused by development and farming.
“The county bought the property to kind of protect that habitat in case it was ever able to make a comeback,” Matthews said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services restored the stream by making it more curvy, which will allow it to better handle large rain events and prevent future erosion.
“You could have driven a school bus through there,” said Kristen Haas, manager of Stevens Creek Nature Center. “It was really deep. It was really wide and the trees were falling.”
Crews also built a bridge over the creek that connects the nature preserve and center to four miles of existing pedestrian trails owned by the county. Matthews said the stream restoration project will play a large role in the education at the nature center.
“Part of our exhibits are going to talk about that project and that process,” Matthews said. “Our environmental educators will also be able to take residents down to the restored stream and they’ll learn how streams get fixed and why.”
Naturalized berms and rain gardens serve as just a few of the integrated educational tools to help teach visitors about water cycles and creek health. Even the parking lot is a mixture of gravel and pavement to help curb runoff.
The nature center is the gateway to the larger site, which is rich with native grasses and wildflowers.
“We’ll have three seasons of color and we’re not going to mow it,” Matthews said.
The entrance path to the building floats over rain gardens, immersing the visitor’s senses with experience of water. Matthews said the walkway is considered a public art piece and was created by an artist from Connecticut.
“I think it’ll be really cool once everything grows in,” he said. “It’ll take about a year for all the plants to come in. It’ll be a pretty neat little gem here on the east side.”
Rain chains carry water from the roof of the nature center down into a collection system that filters it through various water features around the site. A living plant wall greets visitors before they walk inside to see a welcome desk, gift shop and map of the county’s watersheds — also a public art piece.
Educational exhibits include a 5-foot-tall model of a Carolina Heelsplitter and an Augmented Reality Sandbox — a hands-on sandbox exhibit combined with 3D visualization applications to teach visitors about elevation and water flow.
There will also be an aquarium that looks like a stream with water flowing through tanks with fish, turtles and other species found in Stevens Creek. Visitors will be able to see how the stream exhibit works through a window into the pump room.
Staff will be on hand to answer questions and lead educational programs. The nature center has community meeting rooms, youth classrooms, offices, a technology and education center as well as a warming kitchen and outdoor fire pit.
Several garage-type doors can also open on both sides of the building.
“On a really nice day, you can kind of open everything up and get a nice breeze going,” Matthews said. “We’re trying to bend this idea of an indoor-outdoor space.”
Matthews said county staff toured nature centers across the country to gather innovative ideas for designing Stevens Creek. One of the most unique features they came away with was bird-friendly glass that reflects on a lightwave birds can see. This way, birds will not injure themselves by flying into the nature center’s many windows.
“We’re here and we’re impacting the environment,” Matthews said. “We have to give back. We can’t just take all the time.”
A home for history
In addition to exhibits that teach visitors about the surrounding environment, the nature center also houses a collection of bivalve mollusks and freshwater fish for the county’s natural resources team to curate and take care of.
The collection includes an estimated 75 species of fish and 40 species of mollusks gathered across the county and state by Ed Menhinick, a professor at UNC Charlotte. Some species were collected in the early 1960s and are no longer alive.
“It preserves the natural history of what we have in Mecklenburg County, or what we used to have,” Matthews said.
Part of this university-caliber collection is also housed at Reedy Creek Nature Center.
“It’s very unusual for a parks and rec program to have this,” Matthews said.
The idea for Stevens Creek Nature Preserve and center has been a long time coming. Haas hopes that once it opens in the fall, it creates a sense of wonder for visitors, sparks curiosity and prompts questions.
“I’m hoping they feel a connectedness to the land and water,” Haas said. “Their actions have impacts and they can have really positive impacts.”
“It provides an opportunity not only now, but for the future, to take some of these places with really nice forests, really nice woods and a stream that’s been restored and make it a really special place,” Matthews added.
Want to go?
Stevens Creek Nature Center, located at 15700 Thompson Road, Mint Hill, will be open to the public for free starting sometime in the fall. A grand opening date has not been announced. Visit www.mecknc.gov/ParkandRec to learn more.