In Calhoun County, you don’t need special equipment to see billions of stars—just gaze up at the night sky. The West Virginia county is closer to maximizing a vital asset – darkness – through a partnership between Fairmont State University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with support from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
The Second Annual Dark Sky Park Planning and Visioning Workshop and Star Party took place on Nov. 14 at Calhoun County Park in Grantsville. Members of the Calhoun County Commission, Grantsville Town Council, the Calhoun County Park Board and amateur astronomers, along with teams from FSU and UT, attended the event. The West Virginia University Extension Service is also a project partner.
Dr. Tim Ezzell, Research Scientist for the UT Master of Public Policy and Administration program based in the UT Department of Political Science, and Cat Wilt, UT researcher, gave a project status report and discussed recent developments.
“We have made a lot of progress in the past year, but we know we still have a long road ahead of us. We are encouraged, though, by the level of enthusiasm for this project. I think everyone involved sees the potential of this project and understands the need to protect and share this amazing resource,” Ezzell said.
The FSU Architecture Community Design Assistance Center team, comprised of students Shae Strait, Erin Taylor and T.J. Clegg, presented a master plan concept for the Dark Sky Park developed using a Lumion-created environment.
“The general reception was very positive. Everyone was excited to see that there was progress, excited to see some of the ideas and understanding the big picture that we were trying to create the biggest impact for Calhoun County as possible,” said Strait of Shinnston, an M.Arch. student.
Philip Freeman, FSU Associate Professor of Architecture, facilitated a brainstorming session to discuss the concept.
“This was the first time to introduce our team’s concept to the amateur astronomers and the community stakeholders to get feedback on the next step in refining the project,” Freeman said. “The astronomers had not seen the grand concept of bringing the constellations down to the earth. There’s a daytime element to astronomy, and there’s an element for casual stargazers. There was a positive review; people thought our concept was generally a pretty cool idea. The project will be refined so the park is good for the amateur astronomers and the casual stargazer. The park will become an overall economic development tool that is used year-round and not just a couple days a year.”
Freeman said the video, graphics and narrative generated by the FSU CDAC team will be used by the UT team to help find funding to build the park.
“Within a few years hopefully we will be breaking ground on some of these ideas and turning them into a reality,” Freeman said.
FSU, UT and amateur astronomers from the Mid-Atlantic region enjoyed stargazing with the public during the night.
“The stars in Calhoun County are incredible. Once you experience them, you really come to understand how much of the night sky most of us have lost. These are the skies our ancestors knew. People need to see this. We need to preserve it and make it accessible so they can,” Ezzell said.
Strait and the other FSU students had a competition to spot the greatest number of shooting stars. Twelve was the winning number.
“The Star Party was very exciting despite the cold. The astronomers were excited because there were people from the local community there who were unfamiliar with the project, and they were very engaged in sharing about it,” Strait said.
FSU offers an A.S. in Architectural Engineering, a B.S. of Architecture and West Virginia’s first Master of Architecture (M.Arch). The Dark Sky Park project fits with the Architecture program’s Community Design Assistance Center (CDAC) and gives a team of graduate and undergraduate students hands-on, real-life design experience.
“The goal of the Community Design Assistance Center at Fairmont State University is to assist regional communities, neighborhood groups and non-profit organizations with improvements to the built environment through planning and design assistance,” Freeman said. “The CDAC is an outreach arm of the Architecture program at FSU, integrating the learning and working environments by linking students and faculty members to community projects that are unable to afford the services of professional consultants or are not ready to hire a consultant.”