The VCU Rice Center, a newly constructed building that houses the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' Region 1 office, is often referred to as the "chicken coop." The deep green building sits in the middle of what looks like a mud puddle in Charles City County just off Route 5. The murky water is actually a verdant paradise, serving as a bunking quarters for seven types of salamanders, frogs and turtles, which periodically are visible from the walkways that cross it.
The building was named for a family with Richmond connections who donated the land to Virginia Commonwealth University, according to Capt. Mike Minarik, manager for the Law Enforcement Division in Region 1.
"It was specified that the land be used for ecological purposes," Minarik explains. "VCU paid to construct the Rice Center. We're paying them back and will eventually own the building."
Also on the property, at the nearby James River, VCU has built a world-class learning center, the Walter L. Rice Education Building. Game department biologists serve as a resource for students pursuing environmental and ecological studies.
Built without a foundation to reduce its environmental "footprint," the Rice Center was constructed according to Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design (LEED) specifications — as will the new Department of Game and Inland Fisheries headquarters to be built in Hanover County by 2011. Signs throughout the building tout the savings realized by using primarily recycled materials and energy-efficient equipment. While multiple windows draw sunlight into offices occupied by 59 employees, thereby reducing electricity consumption, they also provide views of the multitude of wildlife wandering out of the trees just behind the building.
Inside, there are mounted deer heads, turkey tail-feather fans, turtle shells that run the gamut from hand-sized to mammoth and one live black snake that is temporarily living in a closed container until his owner comes to retrieve him.
The Rice Center is also the hub of a new volunteer program that has helped save the game department a great deal of money. Now in its second year, the program boasts 70 volunteers who work varying hours in a variety of supportive activities ranging from data gathering during deer hunts to assessing crop damage caused by wildlife, bird watching and building snake boxes to collect research specimens. Volunteers support efforts related to wildlife diversity, fishing and exhibits. They also provide office assistance and staff booths at events in Charles City County and at the Region 5 office in Fredericksburg, the other only location with a supporting volunteer force.
Besides its many educational and environmental attributes, the Rice Center proved its usefulness in a completely different way for Bob Duncan, the department's executive director, on the first day of his new job early last year. Duncan and his wife, Dr. Suzanne Nash Duncan, live in Henrico County about 15 miles from the center.
"We had lost power at our home because of a bad storm," Duncan says. "I remembered that the Rice Center had a shower, so I used their facilities. I walked into the legislature about the time they were introducing me. I barely made it."