Story last updated at 4:45 p.m. Thursday, October 17, 2002

Hopes high for new visitor attraction
by Hal Spence
Morris News Service-Alaska

photo: news

  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Jesus Higuera of Tri Cities Construction cuts bricks on Monday at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center site. Work continues as crews hope to get the building enclosed before the first snowfall.  
Mindful of the winter's rapid approach, construction crews were hard at work last week laboring to enclose the wood and steel framework of the new Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center before the snow falls.

But the lockout at West Coast ports could have an impact on the project's supply lines, according to Project Manager Don Marlatt, who said a shipment of steel bound for Homer may have to be trucked from Billings, Mont., instead of shipped north by steamship. Marlatt also said that if the work stoppage continues, it might affect the delivery of the building's windows.

Other than that, however, the project is running fairly smoothly, though behind schedule by about three weeks.

Marlatt said the aim is to have the framework essentially enclosed by the end of November with roofing and glasswork scheduled for next month as well.

"That should be completed in December," he said.

Once the building is sealed, work on the interior can begin in earnest, he said. Expectations are that the project will be completed on schedule early next fall.

"We're still targeting Oct. 1, 2003, to complete the job," he said.

Work began on the 37,000-square-foot center on May 6. The complex covers a healthy portion of 60 acres along the Sterling Highway in the heart of Homer. When open for business, the facility is expected to become a first-class educational and research center, as well as a major tourist attraction that Homer hopes will rival Seward's Alaska SeaLife Center and the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

RIM Architects of Anchorage designed the center. The construction job went to Jay-Brant General Contractors of Homer. The $14.4 million federally funded project has been doubly beneficial to the local economy because the prime contractor and many of the subcontractors are based in Homer or other Alaska communities.

The structure will include a visitors center, an auditorium, classrooms, educational and research laboratories and offices for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, the two agencies that will share the facility.

The Marine Center will serve a variety of functions for the refuge and reserve. Refuge Manager Greg Siekaniec said plans are for about 6,000 square feet of interpretive area, along with a spacious lobby, an auditorium and other facilities that will put visitors in touch with the expansive refuge that runs from Southeast Alaska to the Bering Sea.

"We have a very difficult refuge to access, since we are primarily the rocks, spires, islands and a few odd capes of coastal Alaska," he said in an interview last spring. "That prohibits most people from actually being able to get to the refuge."

The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, on the other hand, has an easier set of problems in that respect, said Reserve Manager Glenn Seaman.

As the name implies, the reserve's prime focus is Kachemak Bay. Reserve programs will be more hands-on and interactive, he said.

The research reserve will have a 1,500-square-foot environmental education lab and about a 1,300-square-foot multipurpose room and a 1,000-square-foot research lab.

The reserve's goal is to conduct integrated research and education that leads to, and fosters, stewardship of the Kachemak Bay region, Seaman said.

Thursday, Seaman said the reserve is pleased with the progress on the building.

"It's really fun to see things come together" he said. "And as the building comes together, it emphasizes the urgency of us putting programs together to utilize the facility and meet our respective agency missions."

The reserve's education staff is designing those programs now.

Once the refuge and reserve agencies are in the building sometime next fall, it may still take a few months to be comfortably settled in.

"We should really get rolling the next spring (2004), in time for the annual surge of students and the summer visitors," he said.

Other agencies, organizations and educational facilities in Homer eventually will be linked to the services offered at the center.

Among other things, kiosks will alert visitors to the full spectrum of educational opportunities elsewhere in the city, such as the Pratt Museum and schools, with which both agencies hope to work collaboratively.

Funding for the $14.4 million project was appropriated through federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

Both the refuge and the reserve have recognized the value of the support of local and state governments, the Alaska congressional delegation and the general public in securing funding for the project.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.