Updated: Wednesday, September 23, 2015, 12:16 PM
Rowan University is purchasing a 65-acre quarry a few miles from its Glassboro campus, with plans to turn it into a full-time public fossil park, where busloads of schoolchildren could dig up vertebrae, teeth, and other remnants of prehistoric creatures.
University officials announced the $1.95 million purchase Wednesday afternoon at the bottom of the vast, muddy crater in Mantua Township, Gloucester County, as Rowan students shoveled nearby in search of bones.
The township has hosted community "dig days" at the site every year or so, typically drawing more than 1,000 amateur fossil-hunters at a time. And professional scientists have had periodic access to the quarry for decades, finding fossils from sharks, crocodiles, turtles, and mosasaurs - water monsters like the one that stole the show in the recent Jurassic World movie.
But with the university's purchase, the eventual plan is to have the site open to the public at least five days a week, said Rowan paleontologist Ken Lacovara. The purchase is not yet final, pending formalities, but fund-raising is already underway to build a visitor center, he said.
"We're going to be a destination like the Philadelphia Zoo or the Franklin Institute," Lacovara said.
The site owner is the Inversand Co., which long mined it for a greenish sediment called glauconite that was used in water-treatment plants. Some refer to the material as marl, which can be found elsewhere in South Jersey and lent its name to nearby Marlton.
Active mining stopped several years ago, but the company maintained the quarry and kept it free of water, ensuring continued scientific access to geologic deposits from more than 65 million years ago.
That date is a big reason that scientists find the site so intriguing. About that time, a massive meteor slammed into what is now Mexico, apparently triggering a mass extinction of dinosaurs.
Lacovara and colleagues are exploring whether some fossils in the quarry might be from animals that died during that event.
He also sees the site as a way to study climate change, as it was submerged beneath the ocean then, with temperatures far warmer than today's.
The quarry was zoned for redevelopment in 2008 and could have ended up covered by retail and residential structures, said Mantua Deputy Mayor Sharon Lawrence. But plans withered amid the economic downturn, and Lacovara and others began to hope that the site could be preserved.
He and Inversand approached the township's economic development committee with that idea in 2012, and that fall the township held the first public dig day.
The township entered into an agreement of sale with Inversand last year, pending the identification of a third party with the necessary funds.
Rowan's board of trustees quietly agreed to be that third party this month, and the township council voted Monday to assign ownership to the university, Lawrence said.
Along with the quarry, the university gets Lacovara himself.
A longtime member of the faculty at Drexel University, the scientist officially switched to Rowan this month as the founding dean of a new school of earth and environmental studies.
At Drexel, Lacovara's accomplishments included the discovery in Argentina of Dreadnoughtus schrani, a dinosaur estimated to have weighed more than 65 tons. Scientists say the big beast, announced in 2014, is the heaviest known dino for which a weight can be accurately estimated.
Rowan president Ali A. Houshmand welcomed Lacovara to the school during his remarks about the quarry, and echoed the scientist's view of the site as an engine for science education.
"This is going to become a location for kids around the country to come and learn science," Houshmand said.
Lacovara already knows the Rowan campus well. He graduated from the school in 1984, when it was Glassboro State College, and lives in nearby Swedesboro.
He has traveled the world in search of fossils, including trips to China and Egypt, but said his backyard can hold its own.
"I think there is no better place in the world to do research than in New Jersey," Lacovara said.
Read full story: Rowan buying South Jersey's own 'Jurassic World' site