FSU Partners with UT for Dark Skies Park in Calhoun County

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Through a partnership with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Architecture students at Fairmont State University have the opportunity to help Calhoun County maximize a vital asset – darkness.

As part of an economic development research project for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, (UT) conducted a case study of 10 counties in the Eastern United States. Among those was Calhoun County, W.Va. For the past two years, a team from UT has been meeting with stakeholders including the Calhoun County Commission and Town of Grantsville.

“During our first visit to the county, we had a discussion with local stakeholders about local assets. No one could name any tourism assets until, finally, one local resident mentioned that it was supposed to be really dark and some people said it was a good place to look at the stars,” said Dr. Tim Ezzell, Research Scientist for the Political Science Department at UT. “That caught our interest, so we checked some night sky maps and, sure enough, it was about the only truly dark place still left in the Eastern U.S.”

ARC grants, awarded to both UT and Calhoun County, are supporting the visioning of a Dark Skies Park at Calhoun County Park, near Grantsville. UT researchers Cat Wilt and Eric Ogle are also part of the UT team supporting the project.

“Our hope is that we can build a destination that can draw people to the county year round. Amateur astronomers are a niche tourism market, but they are some of the best visitors you could imagine. They tend to be affluent, educated and are very dedicated to their interest. A solid, year-round destination for these folks could bring much-needed jobs and revenue to the county,” Ezzell said.

“We also hope that this destination will help expand the range of services and activities in the county. It is really hard to grow these days without things like restaurants, lodging and other fairly basic services. Our hope is that these visitors will provide the critical mass necessary to make these things possible. That would improve the quality of life for folks who live here, create more jobs and opportunities and help them attract new residents and investment.”

The UT team has a strong background in policy, planning and economic development, but as the visioning grant nears its end, Ezzell said the team needed to find a partner university to start the next phase of the project – the design phase – and to pursue a new planning grant from the ARC.

“For this to work, we knew we needed a really strong and creative design team. We also knew we needed a local partner who understood the local culture and local realities. We contacted Philip Freeman and the folks at Fairmont State, and they have been great to work with,” Ezzell said.

“As I see it, both our institutions have an important role to play. Fairmont State will be the design lead, and UT can take the lead on development and policy tasks. I’m hopeful, though, that our roles won’t be exclusive. I think we will have a lot to contribute to the design process, and I hope that FSU will help us with tasks like protecting the darkness, promoting the site and small business development.”

Philip Freeman, Architect, NCARB, coordinates the Architecture program at FSU, which offers an A.S. in Architectural Engineering, a B.S. of Architecture and West Virginia’s first Master of Architecture (M.Arch). Freeman jumped at the chance to partner with UT because the project fit perfectly with the Architecture program’s Community Design Assistance Center (CDAC) and will give 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.”

Shae Strait from Shinnston, W.Va., an M.Arch. student, will lead the FSU team consisting of three undergraduate Architecture students: Terri-Lynn Wolfe from Steubenville, Ohio; Erin Taylor from Martinsburg; and Amanda Rinehart from Marietta, Ohio.

“The scope of preliminary work to be done, programming with UT and the astronomers and working on a design to impact the economy along with the built environment of the Appalachian region is exactly the kind of project M.Arch at FSU needs,” Strait said. “This is the kind of chance I was eager for when I was an undergrad, more so being a West Virginia native. I am thrilled to be working with the undergraduate architecture students in the CDAC to see how this helps them grow and be successful in their future.”

Freeman said that FSU Architecture programs are proud to partner with UT on this project.

“We are excited to do what Fairmont State can do best, which is to reach out to a community and provide design assistance and research. Our main design goal is to maintain as much darkness as we can,” Freeman said. “The initial step is to design the area where the astronomers will set up their viewing platform and telescopes. The next phase will be to provide some kind of shelter for lodging. We would also consider adding support facilities such as restrooms or meeting space.”

To kick off the planning and design phase of the Dark Skies Park project, about 30 stakeholders have been invited to spend the night of Saturday, Sept. 20, at Calhoun County Park. A renovated barn on the property will provide lodging for the group.

“When we started talking about planning for night sky tourism, we recognized that we didn’t know anything about astronomy. In order to plan for these visitors, we really needed to bring them into the process and engage them. Getting a few of them together and having them observe with us is the best way we can assess their needs and help develop a site for them,” Ezzell said.

For that reason, the UT and FSU teams; representatives of the Calhoun County Commission, the county Park Board and the Town of Grantsville; plus a group of amateur astronomers will participate in the Star Party, an event intended to finish up the visioning exercise. The FSU team will lead a design charrette to incorporate the vision into concept planning. After dinner and an Astronomy 101 lecture, the astronomers will participate in some hands-on stargazing.

“We will observe them and make notes on what they do and what they need. All the information we collect from this will then go into a proposal to do a detailed plan for the site,” Ezzell said.

“UT has been a leader in promoting asset-based development in the Appalachian region, and this is one of the best examples out there of a community identifying a local asset and using it to grow their economy. It has the potential to become a model not only for Appalachian communities, but for small rural communities everywhere.”

Freeman said the project reflects the purpose of the new master’s degree program at FSU. 

“FSU’s Master of Architecture focuses on the cultural, geographic and historical conditions that distinguish the character of the surrounding environment and its people,” Freeman said. “Providing design assistance to benefit economic development in Calhoun County also supports the mission of Fairmont State University, which is to provide opportunities for students to achieve their professional and personal goals and discover roles for responsible citizenship that promote the common good.”