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Story Last modified at 11:36 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Preserving the charm
Boreal Forest Ball to help boost funds for nature center

BY CHRIS LUNDGREN
For the Star

photo:News

The Eagle River Nature Center celebrates 15 years of nonprofit operation with its Boreal Forest Ball on May 14. The fundraising event will also help the center as it works on plans for a new facility to be built in the next five years.
Photo by Chris Lundgren

When the Eagle River Nature Center throws its Boreal Forest Ball next month in honor of its 15th anniversary, the celebration won't take place inside the Center. There's simply not enough room. Instead, the dinner, auction and eagle release will be held out in the parking lot under a big white tent.

Lack of space has been an obstacle since the Nature Center first opened its doors as the Chugach State Park Visitors Center in 1981. The state had purchased the property a year before from a homesteader who had operated it as a roadhouse.

"Our building was never designed to be a nature center," said executive director Asta Spurgis. The state park, she noted, had always planned to overhaul the center and turn it into a more user-friendly space for visitors and staff.

"The intent back in the '80s was that it would be a temporary facility until they could get the money and designs for a proper center," she said.

BOREAL FOREST BALL:

The Eagle River Nature Center celebrates 15 years of independent operation with the Boreal Forest Ball and auction, 5-10 p.m. May 14 at the center. Attire is black tie and fleece. Catered by Kincaid Grill; music by Mr. Misdimeanor; and an eagle release by the Bird Treatment and Learning Center of Anchorage. Tickets are $75 each. More details are available at www.ernc.org.

Unexpectedly low oil prices bottomed out Alaska's economy in the mid-1980s and stalled the building's construction indefinitely. When Spurgis and Friends of the Eagle River Nature Center took over operations in 1996, they hoped someday to be able to pursue it again, she said.

In the meantime, they worked with the structure they had.

"We've all loved it despite its flaws," Spurgis said. "We make do because of its fantastic location."

The opportunity to pursue a new structure resurfaced in 2007, when the center applied for and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create an updated master plan. Part of the plan included a site selection, which was completed in December with input from the community.

People expressing concerns ranged from neighbors worried about increased traffic to long-time Nature Center supporters who like its intimate, log-cabin atmosphere and predict the structure would take on a more institutional feel in the future.

The new center, should it come to fruition, will stand just south and downhill from the current site, on an area that had been a racetrack during the roadhouse years. The building will likely total 7,000 square feet, according to the master plan, with a visitor center, educational and meeting rooms, administrative areas, a kitchen and offices.

Spurgis and her staff imagine a day when the center's programs will be held in a separate space from the public area, away from noises from the cash register, phone and entryways. They envision plenty of seating during popular classes and good sightlines that aren't impeded by support posts.

Movement toward a new center continues, Spurgis said, albeit slowly.

"We are certainly still in the very first stage, which is the predevelopment stage," she said.

Friends is working on a preliminary design, she said, to provide perspective on how the new space would be used.

"At this point, it's not about actual building materials or what it will look like," she said. "It's really about how the building would work, functionally and economically."

The group is also looking into cost estimates for constructing and operating a new facility.

"When we get all those figures and finish our business plan, we will be looking at it very, very hard to see if this is something Friends can even take on," Spurgis said.

In the meantime, Friends and Chugach State Park personnel are putting together a memorandum of understanding to lay the groundwork for a contract that will define how Friends should develop a new building on state lands, according to the group's planning committee chairman, Kevin Dee.

"There are many components, many moving parts that have to work in concert," he said. "They include design, fundraising, permitting and contract agreements."

Spurgis and Friends board members expect that a funders' packet will be assembled for distribution to potential financial backers by late August. Ribbon-cutting, at the earliest, would be 2016, Spurgis said. Several more opportunities for public input will take place too.

Spurgis said she and the Friends board understand people's concerns about rebuilding. "The idea is to keep the same feel we have today, providing interpretive education for children and adults and focusing our attention on the independent traveler," she said. "In the future, if the building is done the way that we hope it will be done, it will be just as wonderful as it is now."

Chris Lundgren is an Eagle River freelance writer.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, April 28, 2011.