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Fundraising campaign announced for new tropical butterfly house, educational garden
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Fundraising campaign announced for new tropical butterfly house, educational garden

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Imagine escaping a dreary Missoula winter day and stepping into a steamy tropical paradise where creatures from foreign lands flutter about your face.

That's the vision that Jen and Glenn Marangelo, the founders of the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium, have for a new project slated to be built at the Missoula County Fairgrounds.

"(The tropical butterfly house) will be 2,500 square feet, roughly 80 degrees and 80% humidity and at any given time we're estimating we'll probably have about 500 free-flying butterflies flying around," Glenn Marangelo explained.

The Rocky Mountain Gardens and Exploration Center will encompass four acres at the county-owned fairgrounds along South Avenue. The facility will include 29,000 square feet of indoor space with a conservatory that will be home to free-flying butterflies and tropical plants. There will also be an insectarium with live insects, interactive exhibits and a 2.5-acre outdoor education garden featuring native plants, flowers, vegetables, fruits, herbs and trees.

The butterfly house will be just a small portion of the new $16 million Rocky Mountain Gardens and Exploration Center, which is slated to break ground at the fairgrounds on May 14. The four-acre project should be complete at the end of 2022 and open to the public in early 2023.

On Saturday, the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium, along with the Healthy Acres Healthy Communities Foundation, announced a $5 million capital campaign to bring the state's first tropical butterfly house and education garden to the finish line.

In fact, they've already raised $3 million of their goal, including a $1 million anonymous donation, $350,000 from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and donations from other regional philanthropists. The campaign is called "Join the Buzz."

"Our campaign has been fueled from the very beginning by local community members and organizations who believe in this project to create a new destination for Missoula, a place where we inspire connection with our natural world and each other," Glenn Marangelo said. "All along, even through the pandemic, we have felt the support from people who believe that this is an important project for midtown, for Missoula and for our state."

The butterfly house is a nonprofit organization and is not being built with any taxpayer dollars. It will be housed in the Rocky Mountain Gardens and Exploration Center. The Missoula County Weed District and Extension office will also be housed in the center and is using its own funds, collected from tax dollars and a contribution from Missoula County, to pay for the other $11 million needed for the project.

Marangelo said the facility will be unlike anything in the region. The center will also feature a greenhouse, a plant lab, demonstration kitchens, classrooms and 2.5 acres of education gardens.

Jerry Marks, the Missoula County Extension agent, has been dreaming of building a community center to house his offices since the 1990s. They work to provide sustainable solutions to complex natural resource and land management problems. They also have rigorous youth education and family nutrition programming.

"Missoula has a long history of rural tradition and innovations in farming practices and land management backed by a community that knows what we have here is precious," Marks said. "Now, we get the opportunity to expand our educational programming with new generations of people right here in urban Missoula."

Jen Marangelo said she has dreamed about a tropical butterfly house in Missoula for 15 years. That's why she and Glenn started the insectarium in downtown Missoula in 2009 with the long-term goal of expanding to a bigger facility.

"Insects make amazing subjects for teaching a wide array of subjects," she said. "As more people understand insects, the fear is erased and the fascination begins. Being able to teach children and adults in the setting of a tropical butterfly house is life-changing to their understanding of the ecosystem. Then they can go outside to the education gardens and see the vital role insects play in their own world."

The Healthy Acres Healthy Communities Foundation is the nonprofit fundraising arm of the Missoula County Weed District and Extension office.

On Wednesday, the Marangelos brought a few of the insects they'll display at the new center to the site at the Missoula County Fairgrounds where construction will begin soon. The Australian walking stick insect in Jen Marangelo's hands swayed as it moved, mimicking a leaf blowing in the wind to confuse predators. It's just one of the creatures she hopes will inspire children and adults to learn more about the natural world. The exotic species will serve as kind of the "ambassadors" to get people hooked, but she also hopes they'll take more of an interest in native Montana species.

"If they leave our organization and take more of an interest in what they're seeing in their own backyard, then we've really done our job," she said.

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