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Chimney Rock

A rendering shows planned improvements to the Chimney Rock visitor center.

Chimney Rock’s visitor center was an improvement when it was built, replacing an old trailer that had been near the base of the national landmark.

But that was 25 years ago. The Oregon Trail monument has grown in size — the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation recently bought 360 acres between the center and Chimney Rock — and popularity. Its 35,000 annual visitors can crowd the 4,200-square-foot building during busy summer months.

“It’s small, the exhibits are outdated and there’s no storm shelter,” Leslie Fattig, the foundation's executive director, said Thursday. “That site hosts a lot of school groups; if a tornado comes up, nobody has a place to go.”

So the foundation wants to expand the Ethel and Christopher J. Abbott Visitor Center by another 1,350 square feet, and it announced a $1.8 million fundraiser Friday to freshen its dated displays, build a new entrance that would double as a storm shelter, and add an indoor classroom and gathering space.

Other improvements include an expanded gift shop, accessible parking space, an outdoor classroom and an open-concept theater space, with a clear view of the 300-foot spire that towers above the Platte River Valley.

And the best part? The foundation has already quietly raised $1.5 million, largely through grants, Fattig said. So it just needs another $300,000 in public donations.

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That’s why it delayed the announcement. “We wanted to wait until we were almost done with it. The portion that we would look to the public for would be smaller,” she said. “We’re turning to the larger community of Nebraska to help us.”

Work should begin in October and be completed in April 2020, Fattig said, with a grand reopening a month later.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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Peter Salter is a reporter.

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