‘Teddy Bear’ story to be showcased at new visitor center

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Artist's conception of the visitor's center to be built in Onward.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Artist’s conception of the visitor’s center to be built in Onward.

ONWARD — The next step in bringing the Mississippi “Teddy Bear” story to life was taken Wednesday morning as state and federal officials broke ground on an interpretive center here.

The revered Mississippi story – in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot and kill a black bear captured by local hunter Holt Collier, inspiring the creation and wide reach of the “Teddy Bear” toy – will be showcased at the center, which is expected to open in December 2018.

U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, who secured $5.6 million in federal funding for the project, Gov. Phil Bryant, Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, and several federal and state wildlife officials gathered at the future site of the center Wednesday morning for a ceremony.

Roosevelt’s great-great grandson Simon Roosevelt and Collier’s great-niece Ann Marie Parker also participated in the ceremony.

“This visitor center will remind all of those who will come in the future, young and old, the importance of the hunt itself, but also ethical hunting and public/private partnership, which has created the wonderful land conservation you have today in the Mississippi Delta,” Roosevelt said.

In 2004, legislation sponsored by Cochran and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson established the Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge and the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge. The cost of the center, which is the brainchild of Greenville businessman Clarke Reed, is covered by the $5.6 million in federal funding, which was secured through the passing of two different Senate bills sponsored by Cochran.

Individual donors raised an additional $400,000 for the project. The Mississippi Department of Transportation is building a turning lane and ramp off U.S. Highway 61, though it is unclear how much that project will cost the state.

Bryant said the center will serve as “a gateway to the Delta,” attracting additional visitors to the region.

“The tourism, economic development and conservation part of all this all works together, and of course there will continue to be hunting in the Mississippi Delta, which is a large part, I think, of the tourism that we now see coming into the Delta,” Bryant said.