MEGGETT -- Dixie Plantation's striking views of the Stono River and rows of grand oak trees long have been hidden from the public, but the College of Charleston plans to make them more accessible.

John Henry Dick, an artist who illustrated books on birds and nature, left the 862-acre property to the College of Charleston Foundation in 1995. But it hasn't been used much, school officials said. That's mostly because there are no meeting spaces or overnight facilities, and the college previously has not had the money to build them.

But that's about to change.

The college now has a "Dixie vision," said George Watt, executive director of the college's foundation, and it is ready to launch a short-term plan for the property which includes: building a 4.2-mile interpretive nature trail; renovating an old barn for meeting space; and turning Dick's small studio into a museum to honor him. Dick used the studio, which has a panoramic view of marshes and the Stono River, to draw and paint birds. He once called the property "my own Garden of Eden."

Long-term plans for Dixie include building a small campus with lodging facilities so student groups can stay overnight and a conference and retreat center, which the college can rent to corporate, government and nonprofit groups, Watt said. The campus and the conference center would be built to have a minimal impact on the environment.

The college also plans to eventually tear down Dick's house, which sits adjacent to his studio, Watt said. The house was built in 1947, so it isn't considered to be a historic structure. And it isn't suitable for meeting space or group lodging.

Geology professor Tim Callahan is one of the faculty members who now uses the plantation, which is about 17 miles from the main downtown campus. Callahan has been studying water table conditions since 2004 with the help of undergraduate and graduate students.

He likes the college's plans for the property, he said, and thinks the property is invaluable for the college. "Today, you couldn't go buy something like that for a reasonable amount of money," he said. "It's close, and has diverse habitats."

Watt said college leaders held meetings with faculty and staff members as they developed plans for the property. Professors from many disciplines, not just the sciences, had potential uses for Dixie, he said.

The college finally has the money to get the first phase of the project off the ground, Watt said. The short-term plan will cost about $4.5 million and probably will be completed by early 2011.

Money for the project will come from the college's budget, private donations and the federal stimulus program, said Mike Robertson, director of media relations for the college, but school leaders haven't yet decided how much will come from each of those sources.

Making Dixie more accessible to the college and other groups is an appropriate use for stimulus money because it represents a one-time expense, Watt said. It's also a "shovel-ready" project that will put people to work.

The college will receive about $4.6 million in stimulus money each year for the next two years, Robertson said.

College leaders don't yet know when they will begin building the campus or conference center, Watt said. That likely will happen as money becomes available.

The conference center, which would be rented to outside groups, could become a good source of the income for the college, Watt said. That's important as state-support for higher education has declined dramatically in recent years, he said.

Barney Holt, the college's director of property management, said the campus and conference center will take up only 20 to 30 acres of the property. The rest will be left as a wildlife sanctuary.

Holt said it would be useful if the property could generate some income. Dick's gift didn't come with any money to maintain the plantation, he said. And upkeep is expensive. For instance, Holt said, a majestic allee of live oaks that lines the old entrance to the property recently needed work. It cost $50,000 to prune, clear some Spanish moss and fertilize.

Watt said the college is considering buying the 40-acre McLeod Plantation on James Island. But Dixie and McLeod are very different, and the college has separate uses in mind for each property. But both offer great educational opportunities for students and faculty members, he said.

It's finally time for the college to make better use of Dixie, Watt said. Plans for the property are consistent with the college's newly adopted strategic plan and the college finally has some money to move forward, he said. "Now all the stars are aligned."

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or dknich@postand