BOSTON TOWNSHIP — As Cuyahoga Valley National Park continues to attract more visitors from outside Northeast Ohio, its new visitor center will help serve as a front door to the park so visitors can learn what they can do there and start their park experience.

The Boston Mill Visitor Center, 6950 Riverview Road, was scheduled to be officially opened Friday with a public grand opening ceremony, with activities planned throughout the weekend.

The two-story, 2,500-square-foot visitor center, at Riverview and Boston Mills roads, sits on the western bank of the Cuyahoga River.

"We want to make sure that people are appropriately welcomed, that they understand the content of this park, they understand our position between Cleveland and Akron, and we want to encourage our visitors to go and experience these two wonderful cities," said Deb Yandala, CEO of the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the nonprofit friends group for the park that collaborated with the National Park Service on the visitor center project. "We want to orient them and help them feel really like a part of Northeast Ohio."

The 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which attracted more than 2 million visitors in 2018, was first designated as a national recreation area in 1974 before becoming a national park in 2000.

CVNP Superintendent Craig Kenkel said although it’s 45 years old, "we're still kind of a teenager in terms of park years," and the park has never had a centralized visitor center.

"It took us time to understand our role as a national park and our connection to the communities of Northeast Ohio," he said.

About a decade ago, the park saw 92% local visitors. But according to a 2015 visitor study, 20% of visitors now come from out-of-state.

"We know that there's an increasing international visitation, and we see license plates and through visitor surveys know that Americans are coming from across the country to visit Cuyahoga Valley," Kenkel said.

The property that would eventually become the Boston Mill Visitor Center was built in 1905 as the company store for the Cleveland-Akron Bag Company, a paper mill. The front two rooms were retail space. The shopkeeper lived in the back of the store and rented out the second floor.

Eventually, the store closed, as did the company, and the property became a private residence.

In 2009, Tom and Patty Blubaugh, the owners of the property by then known as Zielenski Court — named for former managers of the store — approached the National Park Service about selling the property.

The Conservancy purchased the property in 2017 for $675,000 — which included the main building, two smaller buildings and the two acres it sits on — and transferred ownership to the National Park Service. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in January 2018.

The Conservancy funded the majority of the project, raising $7.1 million through 557 donors,with just over $3.45 million from foundations, just under $3.1 million from individuals, $385,000 from corporations and $177,000 from the National Park Service. The nonprofit also oversaw construction in collaboration with CVNP.

A Centennial Challenge Grant from the National Park Service provided additional funding that was used to create a 100-car parking lot and a new lot for larger vehicles like RVs and school buses. The existing Boston Mill Station on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad was also moved to the opposite side of Boston Mills Road, back to the station’s historic location and to allow visitors to depart the train and enter the visitor center without crossing the street or blocking traffic.

Inside the building, which includes an elevator and oversized doorways, the two-story south room provides geographic orientation, including a two-story mural of the Cuyahoga Valley; the middle room includes a sales area and information services; and the north room includes information on planning trips. Upstairs includes timelines and community rooms with interactive displays, where people can share their stories.

And yes, there’s no "s" on the end of Mill in the center’s title — that’s intentional. The road used to be called Boston Mill’s Road, but over time, the apostrophe was lost. Park officials wanted to return to the proper historic name for the center.

Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Labor Day through Memorial Day and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in summer. There’s also 24-hour visitor information in outdoor kiosks at the site, which includes public restrooms and views of the Cuyahoga River both from inside the center and from the May Barn Pavilion overlook. A pedestrian bridge over the river is slated for construction in 2022.

The current Boston Store Visitor Center, which mostly features exhibits instead of visitor information, sits just on the other side of the river. It will close Nov. 1 but will eventually reopen as a transformed space the Conservancy will operate.

Jennie Vasarhelyi, chief of interpretation, education and visitor services for CVNP, said the visitor center is meant to be a welcoming, accessible site that makes it easy to plan a visit, especially for those who have never visited the park before.

"The national park is complicated geographically, and it is hard to describe where to go," she said. "Now we can say come here to Boston Mill Visitor Center, and then from here, you can get oriented to everything that there is to do in the park and go exploring."

Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, emills@thebeaconjournal.com and @EmilyMills818.