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National Eagle Center will add four buildings

The National Eagle Center in Wabasha is housed in the building to the right and behind downtown. The four buildings in front on Main Street will be redesigned as part of an expansion of the National Eagle Center over the next three years. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 3
The National Eagle Center moved into this 15,000-square-foot building in 2007 and plans now include adding four historic buildings on Main Street to the Eagle Center complex in the next three years. Steve Gardiner / Rivertown Multimedia2 / 3
The statue of Chief Wapahasha greets visitors to the National Eagle Center along the Mississippi River in Wabasha. Steve Gardiner / Rivertown Multimedia3 / 3

Eagle Watch, which encouraged people to visit Wabasha and see bald eagles, had outgrown its small building on Pembroke Avenue, so in 2007 a new 15,000-square-foot facility opened along the Mississippi River and became the National Eagle Center.

Now, a dozen years later, that facility, as nice as it is, is again too small to handle the more than 80,000 visitors that come from all 50 states and more than 100 countries each year.

Once more, it's time to expand, and Andrea Chapman, director of development for the National Eagle Center , said there are three factors driving that expansion.

First, Preston Cook has offered to give his collection of 25,000 eagle-related items. That will require significant display and storage space.

"This is a world-class collection," Chapman said. "It is his life's work. For it to be here just expands the opportunity we have to connect people with everything eagle. It is going to allow us to do so much more from so many more angles, in so much more depth, and so much more breadth."

The Preston Cook Collection, which will be a permanent donation, has many more items than could be displayed at one time. Adding the collection "is one of the motivators for the expansion," Chapman said. "More eagles and more education space are the other two motivators."

Eagles are the main attraction at the center, so seeing them up close is a priority for most visitors. Increased visitors, and increased requests to have eagles at community events, means the need for more eagles.

"We do education about eagles and the environment and habitat, and adding the Preston Cook Collection gives us a tremendous opportunity to educate about eagles in culture and history and art and everyday life," Chapman explained. "It will be a full humanity's view of eagles and what it means to people in every sense of the word."

Cook, a retired real estate investor, is excited about the expansion and the future home for his eagle memorabilia collection.

"All the documents are signed to donate this collection to the National Eagle Center," he said. "There is no other facility in the country that will be like this in the way of an eagle center with a museum component. It's a one-and-only collection, and it will be a one-and-only eagle center and museum."

Adding the collection, more eagles, and more education space will require expansion beyond the existing facility. The center, working with the city of Wabasha, has acquired access to four buildings on Main Street, across Big Jo Alley, from the current National Eagle Center building.

"We want to preserve the historic integrity of Main Street," Chapman said. "In the expansion, there will be gallery space and storage space. There will be space where people can research the collection."

The center also has development rights to the open space just upriver from its building.

"That will probably be an amphitheater, access to the river, and access to downtown," Chapman said. "It's really the last public open space in Wabasha, so it is important to us and to Wabasha that it be developed in the right way."

The river in front of the center seldom freezes, so the viewing platform and riverwalk provide year-round access to spotting eagles in the area. Additions to the riverfront area would include extra dockage which would allow excursion boats and recreational boats to dock and visit the National Eagle Center.

All of this comes at a cost. Wabasha owns the property, according to Chapman, and because of that, the center was able to receive $8.1 million in state bonding. They estimate to total cost of the expansion at approximately $17.8 million.

"We need to match the state bonding, so we are fundraising," Chapman said. "We are very encouraged by the support that we are receiving. Representative Haley and Senator Goggin were very helpful in securing our funding. We couldn't have done it without their help."

This economic development project is one of the largest along the Mississippi River now, and has drawn attention from other communities including Rochester and the work with the DMC — Destination Medical Center — activities there.

Because many patients make the one-hour drive from Rochester to the National Eagle Center, Chapman said, "We see this as very complementary to the DMC activities in Rochester. They are very supportive of what we are doing, because it enhances the whole region."

The center has hired a general contractor and an architect for the pre-design phase of the 19,000-square-foot expansion. If fundraising and planning continues to go well, the organization could have a groundbreaking in 2021 and a grand opening between 2021 and 2023, according to Chapman.

"We are telling so many stories here," Chapman said. "We tell about environmental stewardship. We tell the story of the eagle and American culture. Everybody has a story about an eagle, so there is something here for everyone. It resonates with a lot of people."

Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner taught high school English and journalism for 38 years in Montana and Wyoming.  He started working at the Republican Eagle in May 2018.  He focuses on features and outdoor stories.  

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