AMHERST — An oversized plush turtle scurried across the floor of the new Hitchcock Center for the Environment last Saturday afternoon.
It wiggled left. It wiggled right.
Out popped 5-year-old Vasu Bombardier from beneath the giant stuffed animal.
“I love the animals,” Vasu said with a bright-eyed smile, noting that turtles are his favorite. He pulled the stuffed turtle over his back and continued to crawl across the carpet.
The kindergartner was right at home in the new Hitchcock Center building, which was unveiled with a ribbon cutting ceremony Saturday afternoon. Despite chilly weather and sprinkling rain, some 200 people gathered to celebrate the completion of the $5.8 million building project.
“This was an incredibly ambitious project,” Nancy Eddy, chairwoman of Hitchcock’s Building for Future campaign, told the crowd.
The Hitchcock Center, which was founded in 1962 to foster environmental awareness, runs numerous programs for children and also welcomes older visitors. The event began with a migration parade from the old center to Hitchcock’s new home on West Street.
Vasu’s mother Mary Bombardier, who works at Hampshire College, said the pair were frequent visitors of the old Hitchcock Center atthe Larch Hill Conservation Area.
“I very much like the amount of resources and opportunities for kids to engage with nature here,” Bombardier said as she sat on the floor with her son.
And those opportunities are expanding. The new building triples the educational space in the center and will allow for more programs.
The new building perches atop an open field between the Red Barn and the Hampshire College Farm Center. The structure operates on ecological design principles like net zero energy and water use.
More than 8,500 participants visit the Hitchcock Center annually, but the old building could only accommodate 50 people in its largest room. The new building can fit 130 people in its biggest room.
The rooms feature living creatures like turtles and snakes, stuffed animals and puppets, and an art gallery that also appeals to older nature-lovers. Walking trails link the blonde-wood building to Hampshire College.
Bulbs and trowels lined the perimeter of the building Saturday for attendees to try their hands at planting. Elsewhere, children sat with Hitchcock Center staff members to engage with critters and plants.
According to Eddy, the $5.8 million project was funded with state money, challenge grants and community donations. In her speech, Eddy said the campaign raised $2 million from 400 individual donors.
Additionally, State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst helped to secure $1 million for the Hitchcock Center through a state environmental bond bill.
Story, who is retiring after more than two decades in the state legislature, attended the event. She told the crowd she plans to show off the new Hitchcock Center building to visitors in the future.
“My tour for out-of-towners and out-of-staters will include this fabulous new building,” Story said. “Thank you to all of you who have helped make this happen. This is quite an event.”
Additional speakers included Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, Amherst Director of Conservation and Development David Ziomek and Hitchcock Executive Director Julie Johnson.
In his speech, Rosenberg read an excerpt from “Freedom’s Plow” by poet Langston Hughes.
“The dream becomes not one man’s dream alone, but a community dream,” Rosenberg read.
Rosenberg said he was astounded by the generosity by community members who contributed money to the project.
“This building represents the faith we have in each other,” Rosenberg said.
After the ribbon cutting, attendees toured the building. Nature walks, an ice cream social and opportunities to meet animals added to the celebration. A long line stretched from a food truck parked near the building.
For Vasu, the kindergartner with a passion for turtles, the opportunity to meet a living box turtle was particularly exciting.
“We have a pretty large collection of plush turtles at home,” Vasu’s mother said.