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Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center: a double boost for Homer; this marine center, still under construction, is expected to draw 30,000 to 40,000 visitors each year.

A new marine center in Homer is poised to be a twofold boon to the seaside town's economy.

The first wave already has hit, with an influx of $15 million in construction funds spread mostly among local workers. The second will begin next fall when the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, a major attraction expected to draw 30,000 to 40,000 visitors each year, is completed.

Construction on the center began last May.

The project has been in the planning stages since 1988, said John Harris, chief of construction for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the primary budgets and will hold the title for the building.

All told, the Alaska Islands and Ocean Center will cost about $18 million. Though the center is a joint project of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, funding was appropriated with state partnerships through federal agencies, including the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and Fish and Wildlife.

"Our partnership with the refuge emerged because it was a logical thing," said Glenn Seaman, manager of the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve. "It made a lot of sense for these two groups, which needed space for research and other things, to come together."

The two agencies and the town of Homer hope the center will rival Seward's Alaska SeaLife Center and Kenai's Challenger Learning Center of Alaska as a hub for tourism, and serve as a new Homer facility for a variety of other groups.

Among its features will be an auditorium, classrooms, and educational and research laboratories. It will also serve as office space for the two partnering agencies.

OUTDOORS, INDOORS

The sprawling Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge stretches from Sitka in the south to Barrow in the north, straying as far west as the island of Attu in the Aleutians. Despite its size, the refuge covers primarily the rocks, spires, islands and a few odd capes of coastal Alaska, said Greg Siekaniec, refuge manager.

"The size of it makes it difficult for most people to actually get to the refuge," he said.

With the easily accessible visitor center, Siekaniec hopes to bring the refuge to the people. "This will serve the entire refuge, and from a visitor's perspective, this is going to be a wonderful experience. It's pretty amazing what's going to be featured in the interpretive area."

The centerpiece of that 6,000-squarefoot interpretive area will be the Seabird Theater, he said, a multi-screened room which puts visitors at the base of a cliff as more than a million seabirds take flight overhead. The visitors' experience will put them in the scene so effectively, he said, they will even be able to smell the ocean thanks to some new technology that will recreate the scent of the shore inside the center.

"It's not just a room, it's an actual experience," Siekaniec said. "It will be as close as you can get to being out there at the foot of the cliff."

From the moment they walk through the front doors, visitors will be part of an interactive, educational facsimile of the refuge. The sprawling lobby will replicate an intertidal zone, with more than 8,000 specially cast pieces embedded in the floor. The walls and columns of the grand room will be covered with barnacles and kelp, Siekaniec said, as if they were part of a living intertidal zone.

The center is designed to be self-guided through the use of interactive multimedia exhibits, but docents likely will be hired during the busiest summer months when the lion's share of the center's visitors are expected to pass through the doors.

Beyond tourism, the new building will provide much-needed office space for about 35 refuge workers and as many as 20 Kachemak Bay Research Reserve employees. It will also serve as a meeting place for community events, scientific gatherings and other symposiums, Siekaniec said.

"We're looking forward to being able to share the facility with nonprofits and other groups in the community," he said. "There's a beautiful auditorium, and a gorgeous lobby that would be great for receptions."

The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, a partnership of NOAA, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and communities along the bay, also will have an interpretive center representative of the body of water right outside the building's walls.

Its exhibits will be more hands-on, said Seaman, and will include a 1,300-square-foot environmental education lab, a 1,100-square-foot multipurpose room and an 800-square-foot research lab.

"Our lab and multipurpose room will be where we'll meet with the public and hold programs for (students) and adults," he said. "Those programs also will be connected with other programs out in the field, on the tide flats."

Visitors will also be able to access nearby Bishop's Beach from the center's 10-acre lot via trails leading away from the building, with interpretive sites along the way.

Seaman said that though the facility will benefit his agency and the refuge, Homer is the real beneficiary.

"Homer already has a lot of environmental education programs," he said, "but this will make those programs more diverse. It may not bring more people to Homer, necessarily, but it will provide a greater host of things for them to do while they're here."

Harris, who is the overall project manager for the visitor center, agreed.

"It's a very visible, very exciting visitor center that has a lot of opportunities for the non-fishing visitor to Homer," he said. "It's another reason for them to get out of their cars. It's more of a reason to stick around in Homer, and it helps show that the Homer Spit is not the end-all, be-all for visitors to Homer."

The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve is one of several groups working to make Homer more of a destination for environmental tourism, Seaman said.

"Lots of groups and people are involved, including the Homer Chamber of Commerce," he said. "The visitor center will really help showcase Kachemak Bay and Homer as a place to go for environmental tourism and learning. That in turn will help Homer and many other nonprofits and groups in town."

RAISE HIGH THE ROOFBEAMS

The 38,000-square-foot visitor center was designed by Anchorage-based RIM Architects. After surviving the preselection process last year, Jay-Brant General Contractors of Homer won the bid award for construction.

"This entire building is challenging," said Jay-Brant Project Manager Don Marlatt. "It's been an ongoing process of interaction between design and construct. It's an evolving project, and we've worked very closely with the architects. RIM Architects is great to work with, and they've been wonderful."

"It's been challenging for the designers and the contractors to coordinate and make decisions quickly as we go," said Monica Wotto, who is handling construction for RIM Architects. "But, it's been a great experience. We have a lot of Homer people working on the building, and a Homer contractor, which is making it a great local experience. It's becoming a real Homer building, and everyone has been working from the heart."

"All the local hires were not planned," said Harris. "As a federal agency, we can't require that sort of thing. But Jay-Brant was ranked highly in the selection process, and they bid against some of the big players from Anchorage and came in with the lower bid. They proposed to use all these local guys, so it was good for us and it was good for Homer."

A wet fall and a late winter hindered workers' progress, but in mid-December Marlatt said he did not expect any lasting delays.

"Tropical weather notwithstanding, all the rain didn't help much," he said. "We're behind schedule, but we'll catch up." Marlatt expected much of the exterior work to be completed this month.

"The interior should be framed, the building will be dried in and we'll be doing mechanical and electrical systems," he predicted. "The interpretive display center will be done by March, and ready for the interpretive display construction. That right there is another $3.3 million contract."

The Visitor Center is predominantly concrete, but it "is not your average warehouse," said Marlatt. The cement masonry will be of different colors and textures with assorted artwork around the exterior, which will include offsets and other features meant to keep the building from looking uniform, or blocky. The footprint includes three "towers," which present a distinct appearance to passers-by even in the building's early stages of construction.

Jay-Brant General Contractors currently employs eight or nine office workers, plus a crew of about 16 working on the marine center, Marlatt said. It's expected to be a 100,000-hour project, providing full-time employment for 45 to 50 workers for one year.

Homer subcontractors include Puffin Electric and Earl's Drywall.

Other subcontractors include: Tri-City Construction, Peninsula Plumbing and Doors/Windows Unlimited, all of Soldotna; Commercial Contractors, Accel Fire Systems, Danco Paving, Evergreen Landscaping and Industrial Roofing, all of Anchorage; and Universal Welding, of North Pole.

The Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center is scheduled for completion in October.
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Author:Bernard, Chris
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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