County begins work on River Ranch Park Interpretive Center

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Williamson County took shovels in hand as officials celebrated one more big step toward the opening of River Ranch Park south of Liberty Hill.

The nearly 1,400-acre park is slated to open sometime this summer, and construction has begun on the interpretive center, set to be a key feature of one of the County’s most natural parks.

“The closest thing we have to this in our system now is the Berry Springs Park and Preserve, but even still this will be unique to the complement of parks the county offers,” said County Parks Director Russell Fishbeck. “The interpretive center is going to be sort of that nexus to bring people to experience the park before they experience the park. It will be a place to go to learn about the resources on the ground at River Ranch, the river itself, the savannah, the woodland, just the overall natural and cultural experiences you can have at River Ranch. For somebody who may be new to this area or maybe to outdoor experiences it is a good first stop.”

The budget for River Ranch got a boost when the County received a $750,000 grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife to fund the center.

The interpretive center will include exhibit, classroom and office space, as well as outdoor space.

“The footprint hasn’t changed as far as location or size of the structure,” Fishbeck said. “We’re still looking at the 4,836-square-foot facility that includes both the exhibition space and outdoor porch.”

Because the County planned River Ranch as primarily a natural park, the interpretive center creates a good educational opportunity for visitors.

“Additionally, it will be a great educational opportunity for us for your regular users as well as our opportunity to bring local school students out there and educate those kids on those cultural and natural resources right here in their backyard,” Fishbeck said. “I think it will be an important opportunity for people to get a glimpse of what is out there on that 1,400 acres.”

Exhibits on display in the center are not set, but could include area ranching history, information on the river, or geology of the area as possibilities.

“In the parks business, the interpretation is a whole separate element of the experience,” said former County Parks Director Randy Bell. “The easiest way is to describe it is, if I had a school bus load of kids for 30 minutes, what would I want them to leave knowing about this park?”

Roadwork continues on Bagdad Road between Liberty Hill and Leander, where the entrance to the park is taking shape.

The addition of more land on the southeast end of the park added to the lengthy development and construction timeline, in part because questions were raised on how to handle utilities. The plan is to have it open to the public by summer.

“We’re saying the summer of 2020,” Fishbeck said. “I don’t know right now if that means May, June or July or even August. The reason this window got extended is when we acquired the approximately 350 adjacent acres earlier in 2019 that added a new dimension to that footprint and it caused the County to back up and say let’s rethink the overhead electrical coming into the park and so the County made a decision to go underground with the electrical. Roads are being developed now. They’re carved out and now they’re being paved. Construction is at full force now.”

The additional land, said Fishbeck provides more buffer and opportunity for additional trails in the future.

The land for River Ranch Park was acquired by the County in 2008 and funds to make it a reality were only approved through a 2013 bond package.

Design Workshop is the architect, and Prime Construction Company Inc. is the contractor.

For Pct. 2 County Commissioner Cynthia Long, the opening of the park and all it promises has created a lot of anticipation.

“With the amazing growth that we are seeing in Williamson County, it is good to have a place not too far away where people can go and unwind in nature,” Long said. “We are grateful for our partners at Texas Parks and Wildlife for their grant, which will help us to enhance the experience we offer park visitors with information about the historic, natural and cultural resources that can be found in the park.”

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