Fairmont State University architecture students are reaching for the stars in producing the conceptual design for a planned addition to Calhoun County Park, a 250-acre expanse of forested hollows and open ridge-top fields nestled beneath some of the darkest night skies in the eastern United States.
The Calhoun County Commission, working in partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, West Virginia University Extension Service and the Fairmont State architecture department’s Community Design Assistance Center, is in the process of developing a Dark Sky Park to draw stargazing visitors to the site, located off W.Va. 16, about 4 miles south of Grantsville.
The idea began to take shape several years ago, when Calhoun County was targeted for an Appalachian Regional Commission economic development study conducted by UT-Knoxville.
“We started with a focus group, asking a handful of Calhoun County residents gathered in a room what assets they had,” said Dr. Tim Ezzell, director of UT-Knoxville’s Community Partnership Center. “There was a lot of silence for a while, and then a guy at the back of the room says, ‘We hear it’s really dark here at night.’ We pulled up some night sky maps and it turned out that Calhoun was a black spot in the eastern U.S., one of only three or four sites where you can still see night skies like that — and you can drive right to it.”
In 2013, a survey was sent to amateur astronomy clubs in neighboring states in an effort to gauge interest in developing a starpark in Calhoun County. More than 300 people responded to the survey, expressing interest and encouragement in the project, Ezzell said.
“People are getting excited about it,” he said. “There’s a bit of a buzz about this on the astronomy message boards in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.”
Astronomy groups have been using the park as dark sky observatory since the late 1990s, including clubs from Canton and Columbus, Ohio, and the Pittsburgh area.
To get an idea about what the Calhoun County Dark Sky Park might look like, Fairmont State’s architecture community outreach was enlisted to help move the project forward.
“We’ve been working on this project since May of 2014,” said Philip Freeman, associate professor of architecture at FSU and director of the university’s Community Design Assistance Center. “We’re using a team of students to help develop a master plan for the park, concentrating on the design element.”
FSU architecture students recently displayed for county officials and interested residents 3-D models of landscaping and infrastructure additions designed to enhance the experience of people connecting with the stars at the Dark Sky Park. Among the landscaping monuments envisioned by the students were a circular mariner’s compass, which “sets the tone for stars as navigational tools,” Freeman said, along with the Big and Little Dippers, and a large earthen Hydra — a twisted snake reminiscent of Ohio’s Serpent Mound.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from the county officials and townspeople,” said Freeman. “The over-arching theme is that we’re bringing the constellations down to Earth so people can better experience what they see in the sky.”
Some of the design work will be a bit more down to earth, involving such infrastructure improvements as power outlets for amateur astronomers, improved rest room facilities, fencing to keep light away from those using telescopes, and possibly some small modular cabins.
“We’d like to bring school groups in along with people from around the state,” Freeman said. “We may have to divide the park into spaces to accommodate everyone, since astronomers need places that stay very, very dark.”
While the ARC is helping to finance planning for the Dark Sky Park, “the biggest hurdle we have now is getting funding to build it,” Ezzell said. “It won’t happen all at once, but every year it should be able to grow a little bit, and eventually it will become a really interesting tourism resource.”
Calhoun County Park offers seasonal camping, hiking and biking trails, several historic buildings and a barn that has been converted into a conference center and office.
Amateur astronomers, Ezzell said, would like to see the park improve its restroom and camping facilities and provide showers — accommodations that would benefit all park users.
“Astronomers are a fairly affluent group that enjoys looking for things to do during the days when they’re not looking through telescopes,” said Ezzell. They are good, low-impact visitors who don’t mind spending money. It’s a great demographic to target, and a great niche for Calhoun County.
Ezzell said it would be wise for Calhoun County to develop regulations to protect dark skies while accommodating development.
“To protect the night sky, we need to intervene ahead of time,” he said.
Reach Rich Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.