The Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation has opened its new educational center, a barn-styled structure that will be central to the nonprofit's mission to teach people about the waterway while working to protect and restore it.

Called the Great Blue Heron Hall, the center will be used to hold classes for school students and to train docents. It will also allow the foundation to offer new public courses in such areas as birding, basket weaving and botany walks, and will be available to the public for meetings.

"It is important for us to improve the visibility of the laguna and the foundation for the public," said Executive Director David Bannister.

The hall's first class this week was a training center for docents, who will work with the foundation's Learning the Laguna program for elementary school students.

"If we weren't here today, we would be at the sewage treatment plant," said Christine Fontaine, director of education programs, who was teaching the docents' class. "It is good to be home."

The laguna is a 16-mile waterway from the Russian River to Cotati that is rich in wildlife and plants and also acts as a winter floodwater basin.

In February 2011 it was designated as a wetlands of international importance by the Ramsar Convention, a group represented by 160 countries, including the United States.

And historically, it was also the meeting ground for the southern Pomo, who were among the most skilled basket-makers, and the Coast Miwok.

The 2,600-square-foot center cost $700,000 and was financed by a California Coastal Conservancy grant.

It is the second phase of construction on the foundation's five-acre property, part of the 112-acre Stone Farm the city of Santa Rosa owns as pasture that is irrigated with treated wastewater.

The foundation previously spent $1 million in private donations to rebuild the 1872 farmhouse that is now the administration center, install a septic system and build the entrance driveway.

An open house will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the foundation grounds, now called the Laguna Environmental Center, 900 Sanford Road, Santa Rosa.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or