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Crosslake: Residents share ideas for national loon center

Crosslake residents Jerry Norgaard (left) and Steve Roe write down ideas for the proposed National Loon Center Thursday, Sept. 7, during a community workshop at Manhattan Beach Lodge. Theresa Bourke/Echo Journal

Crosslakers gathered Thursday, Sept. 7, at Manhattan Beach Lodge to learn about the possibility of a national loon center in Crosslake.

The group working on the initiative trademarked the National Loon Center Foundation, as no other organization with the same name or idea exists in the country, and is working to make the foundation a nonprofit.

The idea for the loon center came from the Minnesota Design Team's visit to Crosslake last year when many Crosslake residents identified water quality and environmental sustainability as the No. 1 issue for the city. Its purpose, according to National Loon Center Foundation President Jim Anderson, is to promote environmental education, shoreline and loon habitat restoration, and clean water initiatives, as well as to connect the town to the lake through public docks.

So far, the project has received three grants, including one from the University of Minnesota Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership board of directors and one from the National Park Service.

Along with the grant from the University of Minnesota, the loon center group will also receive help with planning and marketing.

Right now, Virajita Singh - University of Minnesota senior research fellow and assistant professor who works in the Center for Sustainable Building Research - and her team are working with the loon foundation to define the scope, scale and design of the facility.

In the winter and spring of 2018, the loon foundation will then work with the University of Minnesota Department of Applied Economics, led by Bill Gartner, to research the marketing and feasibility of the proposed center.

A parallel project will also be underway with the Initiative Foundation and the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce to develop a business plan.

Singh's team includes Center for Sustainable Research Director Richard Graves and graduate student Joe Polacek, who were also at the meeting at Manhattan Beach Lodge.

"We're really excited about this project because it hits a lot of our hot buttons," Graves said.

"We're really interested in the intersection of development projects with projects that can teach about the environment and build ecoliteracy and also tourism and children's education, and this project has all of that in it."

In terms of design, Singh's team is looking at how the very form of the proposed building - which may go near the Army Corps of Engineers Campground in Crosslake, if built - and its landscape can be used to teach about loons and can provide a habitat for loons and other wildlife. They are also using regenerative design, which is the idea that people and nature work together to create a balanced environment.

Polacek discussed other centers the team is looking at to help with design ideas as well, such as the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, the International Wolf Center with locations in Ely and Brooklyn Park, and the Environmental Learning Center in Florida, which relates to Crosslake because of its situation right on the water.

Singh then opened the meeting up to public feedback.

"We want to understand why the loon center is important (to Crosslake residents), what opportunities and barriers you see and your dreams and aspirations you see because that will hone the basis of how we move forward," Singh said.

Attendees worked in small groups to discuss those ideas and then shared their thoughts with the rest of the room.

Why is it important?

Several residents said a loon center is important because it would provide a destination for tourists and help to put Crosslake on the map.

Many people also noted environmental education as important and said the center could be used as a mechanism to teach about not only loons, but other environmental issues as well. Resident Eileen Kulseth said this kind of education is important because the lake is often seen as a playground instead of an ecosystem.

Preservation of the loon and its habitat was another issue of noted importance.

Opportunities and barriers

Residents said a loon center could provide opportunities such as an extended and possibly year-round tourist season, new revenue and jobs to strengthen the city's economy, and a project that the community can unite around and take pride in.

Because Crosslake is currently working to update its comprehensive plan, it was also noted that the center could be taken into account and used to help further the comp plan's goals.

Noted barriers for the project included money, staffing, maintenance, city congestion and parking issues.

Dreams and aspirations

Participants had several ideas of what they would like to see in a loon center. Mayor Patty Norgaard said she hopes the center could increase the city's economy without causing Crosslake to lose its small-town feel.

Other aspirations included: a place to view loons up close; an underwater viewing area; a place to nurse sick loons; a loon mobile, which would be an electronic trolley running throughout the city; a national loon calling competition; a place that would draw international crowds; and child-friendly aspects that the Crosslake Community School could make use of.

An idea the National Loon Center Foundation has come up with is to create a facility that houses not only the loon center, but other community organizations, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Crosslake Area Historical Society, the train museum and the chamber of commerce.

In fact, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian said at the meeting that the chamber pledges to move its Crosslake office to the loon center, should it be built, to help run operations.

"When we talk about staffing and some of those maintenance things, I think we can be part of that solution," Kilian said.

All of the input from the meeting was documented on posters, and Singh said her team will use it to aid the design process. On Tuesday, Oct. 17, she and her team will come back to Crosslake to share their design ideas and get more community input. A third meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 5, will reveal the group's final design and recommendations. After that, the feasibility and marketing study will commence.

For more information on the loon center and a complete list of partners and funders, visit www.nationallooncenter.org. Anyone who wants to receive updates on what the group is doing can email their contact information to info@nationallooncenter.org.

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