The proposed National Loon Center in Crosslake, Minn., has gained important momentum in the past year as it approaches key hurdles in fundraising and the make-or-break acquisition of land.
“It’s all still up in the air, but everything is looking very positive,’’ said Leah Heggerston, executive director of the National Loon Foundation. “We remain very hopeful.’’
This week at the State Capitol, lawmakers are reviewing $4 million in bedrock funding for the project. But even if those state lottery proceeds are approved, the first $1.5 million of the allotment can’t be unlocked unless the Loon Foundation negotiates a no-cost lease of lake frontage from the Army Corps of Engineers.
The remaining $2.5 million of state money wouldn’t be handed out unless the foundation raises $6 million outside of state government. If the site is acquired and the $10 million center gets built, it would operate from admission fees and other forms of revenue, organizers have said.
Heggerston, the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, said Wabasha’s successful National Eagle Center has become a model for the Loon Center project. The Eagle center depends heavily on tourist traffic and operates seamlessly within a small town, bringing economic benefits to the community.
“It’s really crazy how much we are alike,’’ she said.
Heggerston said Rolf Thompson, the Eagle Center’s executive director, has been an important adviser.
Crosslake’s proposed National Loon Center is envisioned as an educational, 15,000-square-foot visitor center on a piece of Army Corps land that’s nestled in a cove on Cross Lake. The overall, 65-acre tract is shaded by tall pines and would continue to be dominated by a recreational campground.
The proposed facility is aimed for what is now a day-use area, would operate year-round and include water quality and wildlife habitat exhibits, a loon and freshwater research center, laboratory and classroom space. The Loon Foundation is in talks with the University of Minnesota to be a long-term partner.
“Our visitors will learn how to help water and wildlife,’’ Heggerston said.
Lease negotiations with the Army Corps could begin as soon as late April after all public comments on the agency’s environmental assessment of the project are reviewed. The assessment was published last week and the deadline for comments is April 22.
Will Wolkerstorfer, Loon Center project manager for the Army Corps, said the proposed Loon Center must be judged to be within the master plan of the Army Corps’ mission in Crosslake. For instance, he said, the Loon Center can’t negatively affect the lakeside campground.
If the agency decides to go along with the Loon Center project, a lease could be hammered out relatively quickly, Wolkerstorfer said. In that case, a favorable funding vote by the Legislature could lead to the release this summer of $1.5 million to build public docks, five demonstration areas, a boardwalk, bird sanctuaries and other outdoor features.
Construction of the main visitor center building couldn’t begin until the Loon Foundation raises another $6 million.
Becca Nash, director of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, said the first $4 million in funding for the Loon Center is packaged with other environmental spending priorities identified by the commission and recommended to the Legislature. The measure must pass the House and Senate, then be signed by the governor, for any of the funding to happen.
Nash said the Loon Foundation achieved an important benchmark last week by convincing the City of Crosslake to act as the foundation’s fiscal agent for the project. The Department of Natural Resources will now vet the city to determine if it can handle the necessary fiscal oversight for the project in accordance with laws governing state funds.
Nash said the foundation needs an approved fiscal agent because it’s new, has no paid staff and lacks the proven capacity to manage grant money or keep tabs on contractors.
Nash said the $2.5 million set aside for construction of the proposed Loon Center can’t be secured by the Loon Foundation until it raises $6 million — a campaign that will target the federal government and private donors.
Heggerston said the push for federal money targets British Petroleum oil spill settlement funds apart from what has already been discussed for Minnesota and its migratory birds.
To raise corporate money and donations from individuals, the Loon Foundation has aligned itself with marketing professionals at Minnesota-based Adventure Creative.
The firm’s founder and CEO, Scott Mitchell, is on the board of directors at the Loon Foundation. Heggerston said Adventure Creative is helping to create naming rights opportunities and other vehicles to earn private support. Adventure Creative’s other clients have included Explore Minnesota and The Minnesota Zoo.
If everything falls into place, Heggerston expects the Loon Center to materialize in its entirety some time in 2022.
The Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce already has agreed to operate the Loon Center, which has been described in the past as a Minnesota eco-tourism project.