Prince George's County park and planning officials are trying to determine the size and scope of the proposed "dinosaur park" in Laurel and whether the fossils at the 30-acre site are too rare to allow the public hands-on access to any digs.
Those issues are expected to be resolved in the coming months when the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission studies the soil and looks for a designer for the project.
The plan got its official blessing last week after the County Council unanimously approved $62,500 for the design of the park. The county is required by the state to pay for 25 percent of design costs. The state--through Program Open Space--is contributing $187,500.
The project will need additional funding from the county in future years to cover the expected $600,000 price tag.
"We finally got a little local money passed," said council member Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville), whose district includes the proposed park site. "It's a big plus, and I'm looking forward to seeing something happen."
The idea of an education center with a dinosaur theme was first proposed in 1992 by District paleontologist Peter M. Kranz. A year before, the largest adult dinosaur bone ever found in the northeastern United States was discovered in a clay pit in Laurel.
Kranz and others who advocated for the center--including then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer--envisioned a place where the public could dig for fossils alongside trained paleontologists.
The biggest dreamers even saw a place where visitors could buy souvenirs in the DinoStore, go down the Dino-Slide in the Kiddie Dinosaur Playground and watch plastic reptiles rise from a pond and move in the woods of Dinosaur Forest.
"The prospect of thousands of Maryland kids being on a dinosaur fossil dig site is very exciting," said Richard Dolesh, a forest and wildlife director for the state Department of Natural Resources.
But Dolesh, who was chief interpreter for the county planning commission in 1992, said funding was and continues to be an issue for the park.
Laura Jean Kinch, a commission landscape architect who is overseeing the development of the park, said it may never be as grand as what some have proposed or look like a "Disney World-ish" learning center where the public can participate in fossil digs.
"What we envision is a center similar to our neighborhood community centers, and it will emphasize dinosaurs," she said. "The overall theme will be a scientific theme rather than a sports theme."
Kinch said the commission had budgeted only enough money to build a standard neighborhood recreational center. She said the funding is not adequate for anything bigger.
"It's so early in the project design that we're not even certain what kind of resources are there and whether it would be appropriate for people to dig," she said. "We'd like it to be something available to the public, but we aren't sure of the scientific value [of the site]."
Kinch said the center likely will be designed in a way that it could be expanded if more money became available from the public or private sectors.
Maloney said he hopes the center will be interactive.
"The land is attractive as an educational and tourist site," he said. "It's a big asset. The thing about dinosaurs is you have to take them where you find them."
CAPTION: Washington paleontologist Peter M. Kranz, with helmet--shown here helping students at an archaeological dig near Redskins Stadium in 1997--first proposed an education center with a dinosaur theme in Laurel in 1992.