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National Eagle Center has big plans for state funding

June 14, 2018 GMT

The nearly $1.5 billion bonding bill signed by Gov. Mark Dayton on May 30 included a significant funding for a Southeast Minnesota landmark.

The National Eagle Center in Wabasha, known as one of the world’s most comprehensive resources on bald and golden eagles, received $8 million as part of the bill’s commitment to funding public works projects in Minnesota.

The money comes as part of a $16 million total expansion project, with the rest of the money coming from private donors.

Executive Director Rolf Thompson said that he was grateful that the Legislature included the National Eagle Center in the bill, seeing it as acknowledgment of the Center’s importance to Minnesota.

“The fact that the Legislature included Wabasha’s request in their final bill that the governor signed really is recognition of the statewide significance of the National Eagle Center,” Thompson said. “It’s recognition that we’re seen as a statewide asset.”

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According to Thompson, the money for the expansion project will be used provide more space for the Center’s live eagles, and will allow the Center to expand upon its educational programs. It will also give the museum itself more exhibit space for additions to the center’s art collection, which recently received an additional 25,000 artifacts as a gift.

Additionally, Thompson says that the Eagle Center will be able to make necessary improvements to the training of its eagles with the money, while keeping up with an ever-growing amount of visitors. Just last year, over 83,000 people visited the Center, with 90 percent of those visitors reportedly coming from outside the Wabasha area.

With a large number of people coming through the doors, the demand has become high for not only for more space and educational programs, but for more actual eagles as well. Thompson says he hopes to double the amount of birds at the Center, which, along with the other improvements, should increase the number of visitors even further.

More visitors should, in turn, ultimately bring increased revenue to the entire Wabasha area. The NEC currently brings in around $3 million per year, and these improvements will likely only improve that figure while simultaneously boosting the revenue of surrounding businesses.

Rep. Barb Haley, a Republican from Red Wing, saw this potential economic impact and was on board from the beginning. Thompson credited the Haley as a “champion” of the bill, and Haley says that she spent the last two-plus years advocating throughout the state capitol for financial support of the project.

“Projects like this don’t come around like this very often. It’s kind of a once-in-a-decade or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Haley said. “I see the Eagle Center expansion and the addition of the art collection as a chance to make it an even more established regional center and a jewel for the state of Minnesota.”

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Haley also thinks that the additional tourism that comes from the Eagle Center improvements will prove to be a boon for the entire region of the state, rather than just Wabasha.

Haley said that her goal to use the Eagle Center as one of several tourist spots for people to visit in Southeast Minnesota. In Haley’s view, this would allow tourists to view the region in the same way they see the northern part of the state in terms of attractions and natural beauty.

In that vein, Haley says she’s a big advocate for referring to this region as the “south shore” of Minnesota. Ultimately, that she wants people to view towns like Wabasha and Lake City in a similar light as smaller towns up north, such as Twin Harbors or Grand Marais.

“That’s what I feel like we can build here from Red Wing all the way down to Wabasha,” Haley said. “We can jointly leverage amongst all those communities the tourism opportunities, the natural beauty we have and the wonderful nature of living in small communities.”

The Eagle Center is hopeful for breaking ground on these new additions in 2019, although Thompson mentions that a lot would have to fall into place for that to happen.

Still, even with the wait, Wabasha area residents are excited about the planned additions. Not only because the Eagle Center will get a facelift, but because, as city council member John Friedmeyer noted, that the bill will also include funds the redevelopment of the city’s Riverfront.

Similar to Haley, Friedmeyer is enthusiastic about the economic impact that the improvements will have beyond the community, giving Wabasha further legitimacy as a destination city in Minnesota.

“The impact to the community is going to be just incredible,” Friedmeyer said. “Every community is looking for something that’s going to help them move forward and continue to be a viable, strong community for its residents. This continues to ensure the growth and viability of Wabasha.”