Visitors travel from all over to ride an ATV onto the Oceano Dunes or hike at Oso Flaco Lake, but many may never have stopped at a toffee-colored house on Highway 1 in Guadalupe.
In fact, thanks to its annual offerings of after-school programs and classroom instruction, it’s possible that more elementary school-age children have heard of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center than the general public, said Doug Jenzen, who became the nonprofit organization’s executive director Jan. 1.
“I’d like to see the Dunes Center grow,” Jenzen said during an interview this week. “I’d like to provide educational services to the entire Central Coast and become more well-known.”
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While children will remain a key focus — the center has served about 50,000 students since 2003 — Jenzen hopes to incorporate more technology, new and updated exhibits and other events to give people a reason to frequent the Dunes Center.
“We’ve placed a renewed emphasis on the Dunes Center itself, to have a place where visitors can come and be a part of the organization and learn more about our environment,” he said.
In the past few months, Jenzen has received one grant to purchase iPads for after-school programs to give children more exposure to technology, and another grant to develop a phone app so people can learn about different areas of the dunes.
He also started a creative-writing class for children to write about nature and hopes to publish their stories into a book that will be sold at the Dunes Center bookstore to support children’s programs.
The Dunes Center became a nonprofit in 1999, about 10 years after the Nature Conservancy, while working on preservation efforts, planted the seeds for a visitors center. The center opened in 1996, and was adopted by the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County two years later before becoming an independent organization.
The center promotes conservation and restoration of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes ecosystem, which includes 18 miles of coastline from Pismo Beach to Point Sal.
The Dunes Center houses various exhibits, including massive bones from a gray whale that washed onshore about 10 years ago, and colorful glass containers filled with sand from numerous locations around the globe.
There’s also information about the Dunites — bohemian colonists who lived between Pismo Beach and Oso Flaco in the 1920s and '30s — and tiny trout growing in a fish tank as part of an exhibit about the local watershed set up in collaboration with Central Coast Salmon Enhancement.
The biggest draw to the center, however, is arguably the relics left behind from “The Ten Commandments.” The center houses several pieces of plaster and carved wood from Cecil B. DeMille’s huge movie set built in the Dunes in 1923, as well as small glass bottles that held cough medicine with a high alcohol content — more than likely used by the cast and crew for reasons other than to combat coughing.
Last October, filmmaker Peter Brosnan, who started filming an excavation project of DeMille’s lost city about 30 years ago, returned to the Dunes as a team from San Luis Obispo-based Applied Earthworks excavated a plaster sphinx head that’s the size of a pool table, Jenzen said.
Once restored, it will be placed on display at the Dunes Center, most likely in June.
“I had to measure the doors to make sure it will fit in (the center),” Jenzen said, “and now we’re trying to figure out how to drive it up here from L.A.”
This year’s Central Coast Orchid Show & Sale will include an event benefitting the Dunes Center on Friday. The event will be held at the South County Regional Center, 800 W. Branch St. in Arroyo Grande, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. and will feature local wines, live music, a silent auction and awards presentation. Tickets are $40; go to www.dunescenter.org or call 929-5749 or 801-6850. The show continues Saturday and Sunday at the same location (admission is $5, children 12 and under are free). The Dunes Center will have a booth at the event for the public to learn more about its programs and events.