Walking the grounds, it takes a familiarity with the blueprints to tease a mind's-eye view of what this flat expanse of brown earth and excavation a-roar with backhoes and bulldozers will look like a year and three months from now.
Nevertheless, Don Marlatt, project manager for the prime contractor, Jay-Brant General Contractors of Homer, pointed out features in the landscape, drawing a picture in words about Homer's future Marine Center (the final name has yet to be determined), a federally funded project that will serve as joint headquarters for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve.
After 13 years of planning, dirt work finally began May 6 at the 60-acre site just off the Sterling Highway in the heart of Homer. When it is completed in September 2003, the 37,000-square-foot building will be a first-class educational and research facility, not to mention a major tourist attraction that Homer residents hope will rival the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.
Here and there can be seen the beginnings of foundation work, elements of a future rock retaining wall, pilings to support a pedestrian bridge joining the building site to its parking lot. Even simple spray-painted lines on the dirt offer hints of what's to come.
The dirt work portion of any job can be the hardest to grasp for the casual observer. What exists initially may be entirely transformed in level and grade when the final landscape is finished. But moving earth can hold surprises even for the engineers.
"We took out 5,500 yards of stumps," Marlatt said.
Finding the remains of trees pushed aside and buried when the portion of the Sterling Highway, known locally as the Homer Bypass, was constructed was unexpected. The "stump farm" caused only a minor delay, however, and the recent spate of good weather has helped keep the project on pace, Marlatt said.
"That's the one thing that saves a job, I think. When it starts, if we can get out of the dirt before the rains come, we're halfway home," he said.
Marlatt said the aim is to have a roof on the structure by late fall and proceed with interior work during the cold winter months. If all goes as planned, Jay-Brant expects to hand the keys to the owners by the end of summer next year, he said.
The Marine Center will be made out of concrete, but it will have anything but a Spartan industrial look, said Greg Siekaniec, the refuge manager. The cement masonry will be of different colors and textures with assorted artwork gracing the exterior walls -- walls that will include offsets and other features meant to break up any sense of blockiness, Siekaniec said.
The building, designed by RIM Architects of Anchorage, will house a visitors center, auditorium, classrooms, educational and research laboratories and offices for the refuge and reserve. Here, too, artwork with a marine theme will enhance the aesthetics of the interior. In fact, the artwork will make entering the building a little like walking down a beach and into the intertidal zone.
Outside, trails will provide visitors easy access to Bishop's Beach. A veteran's memorial sponsored by the local post of the American Legion will be on the 60-acre grounds.
As large as the building is, it will have only a modest impact on the scenery, said Glenn Seaman, manager of the research reserve.
"We tried to make a low profile," he said.
Trees were downed to make room for the construction, but 70 percent of those were beetle-killed spruce. Others may one day have to fall if the absence of surrounding trees renders them unable to withstand stiff winds.
The Marine Center will serve a variety of functions for the refuge and reserve, Siekaniec said.
"There's the visitors center based on environmental education and interpretation where we are trying to bring the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge to the visitor of the peninsula region," he said. "We have a very difficult refuge to access, since we are primarily the rocks, spires, islands and a few odd capes of coastal Alaska. That prohibits most people from actually being able to get to the refuge."
Some 6,000-square feet of interpretive area, along with a large spacious lobby, the auditorium and other facilities will put visitors in touch with the expansive refuge that runs from Southeast Alaska to the Bering Sea.
"In contrast to the maritime refuge, our reserve is right out there," said Seaman, pointing toward Kachemak Bay. "Our programs are more hands-on interactive. As such we have a 1,500-square-foot environmental education lab and about a 1,300-square-foot multipurpose room and a 1,000-square-foot research lab."
Formerly referred to the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the shorter Kachemak Bay Research Reserve has since been adopted as the official name. The reserve was dedicated in 1998 as Alaska's only unit in the national estuarine reserve system, a program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, launched nationally in 1972 as a part of the Coastal Zone Management Act.
The goal of the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve is to conduct integrated research and education that leads to, and fosters, stewardship of the Kachemak Bay region, Seaman said.
Siekaniec said he doesn't want the center to be the only place visitors stop in Homer. They will provide a kiosk full of information about what else is happening in the city, including such educational centers as the Pratt Museum, with which both agencies hope to work collaboratively, he said.
Siekaniec and Seaman said they envision collaborative efforts between the two agencies, as well, especially concerning some of the visitors expected to flood to the Marine Center -- school children, college students and adults seeking educational enrichment.
Funding for the $14.4 million project was appropriated through federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.
However, Siekaniec and Seaman were quick to point out that if it hadn't been for the support of local and state government, the help of Alaska's federal delegation and especially the active involvement of the public in preliminary design work, the center would not be under construction today.
"That's why we're here," he said.
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