The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge will break ground on the construction of a new $6 million visitor center in Soldotna this spring, refuge officials announced Feb. 14.
The refuge visitor center sees the most visitors of the 15 other U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge visitor centers in the state annually, refuge Manager Andy Loranger said. He said about 1 million visitors in a year is common.
"The primary reason for a new visitor center now, at this refuge, is in recognition of that," Loranger said.
The roughly 6,500-square-foot building will be set southwest of the current visitor center closer to the refuge entrance, said Janet Schmidt, visitor services manager. The refuge plans to open the center in the fall of 2014, according a press release.
The total project cost, which includes a renovation of the current headquarters, is $9.9 million, according to the document.
The current refuge visitor center is 34 years old and has needed a new center to house growing programs and office space, Loranger said. He said it has been a top Fish and Wildlife priority for years.
The new center will include an 1,800-square-foot exhibit hall, an 80-person-capacity multi-purpose room, a sales lobby and three offices for volunteer staff, according to the document.
The refuge renovations that come with the new center also will create parking for tour buses, Loranger said.
The old center will serve as office space for refuge staff, opening up housing for the seasonal workforce, he said.
The new center also will serve as a hub for the special events -- wild berry foraging and winter fun days, for instance -- the refuge offers, Loranger said.
Loranger said the center will increase the refuge's educational outreach. For example, he said, the interpretative displays in the exhibit hall will introduce visitors to the ecosystem and the importance of the refuge's conservation efforts.
"It's part of the educational experience," he said. "When you have these kinds of facilities it really adds to that."
Jim Sterling, senior program manager of SIKU Construction, the company contracting and overseeing the design of the building, said he is prioritizing local hire for contractors.
Sterling has already signed on various Kenai- and Soldotna-based civil contractors -- those that move the dirt -- and he will be looking for roofing, concrete, steel erection and landscaping contractors in late April, he said.
He said the center's designs will be 100 percent complete by mid-April.
"It's going to be an awesome facility to visit," Sterling said.
Ken Tarbox, president of the Keen Eye Birders, said he is excited.
He has lived in the community for 33 years, and the refuge is a good place to view birds, especially for tourists, he said. Aleutian terns nest at the refuge and he often takes visiting birders to see them, he said.
He said he thinks birding is among the primary reasons tourists visit the Kenai Peninsula, and the new visitor center will satisfy the growing demand.
"I think introducing more and more people to the natural world is a good thing," Tarbox said. "It helps people make more informed decisions."
Dan Schwartz is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.