"Yes."

That short, three-letter word garnered cheering and applause from those gathered Friday, June 8, at Manhattan Beach Lodge. That's the word Crosslakers supporting the city's proposed National Loon Center had been waiting to hear for so many months.

It came from University of Minnesota Ph.D. student Elliot Charette, who conducted a feasibility study for the project.

"Is the National Loon Center feasible?" Matt Kilian, National Loon Center Foundation vice president of marketing, asked after Charette's presentation Friday.

"From the numbers I generated, I'd say yes," Charette told the excited crowd.

About the project

The loon center idea came from the Minnesota Design Team's 2016 visit to Crosslake, when many residents identified water quality and environmental sustainability as the city's No. 1 issue. A dedicated group of citizens ran with the idea and created the National Loon Center Foundation. The center's purpose, as stated in a video at Friday's gathering, is to "promote environmental tourism in the area" through initiatives that "will help protect the shoreline, reduce invasive species and allow loon nesting."

Once those initiatives are completed, the video said, "a 15,000-square-foot National Loon Center will be constructed. This state-of-the-art facility will house the Freshwater Institute, chamber of commerce offices, interactive exhibits and multipurpose rooms for the community. Learning opportunities will expand beyond the building into the bay. Visitors will be able to take bike rides and collect water samples for testing back at the center."

The proposal, which places the center at the Army Corps of Engineers Campground on Cross Lake, has since garnered support from several businesses and organizations, including the National Park Service, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

A grant from the University of Minnesota Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership board gave the foundation not only financial assistance, but help with planning and marketing as well.

Last fall and winter Virajita Singh, University of Minnesota senior research fellow and assistant professor who works in the Center for Sustainable Building Research, and her team worked to define the loon center's scope, scale and design. They presented design proposals, and community members gave feedback.

The National Loon Center Foundation then began working with University of Minnesota applied economics professor Bill Gartner and his research assistant Charette to find out if the center is actually feasible.

Feasibility

Charette looked at demographics, visitation potential and an operating budget scenario to determine the center's feasibility. Through his research, he concluded that enough Minnesotans - regional and tourists - are interested in bird-watching and travel a substantial distance each year to do so.

Having other nature sites in the area - like the Paul Bunyan State Trail, Cuyuna Range Recreational Area, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Campground and various state parks - is also a positive, Charette said, and could attract nature enthusiasts to the loon center.

He used the success of the National Eagle Center in Wabasha as a point of reference for the kind of educational tool and tourist destination the loon center could become.

Feedback

After hearing Charette say the project is feasible, a few community members who were gathered Friday night had concerns about the scope of the project, like what the center would do for the environment, specifically water quality and loon habitats.

Leah Heggerston, National Loon Center Foundation vice president/treasurer, said the loon center will come with shoreline habitat projects like putting docks in the lake to pull boaters off the shorelines, rehabbing the shorelines for loon habitats. Educational programs will be aimed at boater safety, as boaters, she said, are the No. 1 killers of loons.

Molly Zins, executive director of the University of Minnesota Extension Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, said the National Loon Center Foundation is working with the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association and the Pine River Watershed Alliance, two groups that have spearheaded water quality efforts in the lakes area, and will continue to collaborate with them.

Kilian said the loon center's educational initiatives could indirectly help to improve water quality.

"Are the loon center staff going to be doing water quality improvement? Probably not," he said. "Now, by learning about the loon as a kid, as a student or a tourist are you going to make better decisions in your property and how you interact with the environment? Yes, absolutely."

Crosslake resident Garrett Hengstler asked about the main point of the loon center.

Killian said there are three main goals: protect habitats, enhance environmental recreation (ecotourism) and conduct interactive research.

More and more people are looking for environmental tourism opportunities like this, Kilian said, so the loon center could bring more tourists to the area while also educating the community about loons.

"If we're not able to learn more about those loons and preserve habitats and really preserve the species, Minnesota could actually lose its loon population within a few decades," Kilian said.

After Friday's meeting, Hengstler said he supported the loon center but still had concerns, especially about the loon center just being a way to boost the economy and attract tourists who will simply spend money and then leave. He said he hopes it will be more than just a "chintzy, hands-on display and cool boardwalk."

"It could be a huge research opportunity," he said. "It could be a hub for preparedness or research and also set an example. ... What can people that have lake homes do to help the environment?"

Though drawing in families and children could be beneficial, Hengstler said the center should be geared primarily toward college students and scientists doing environmental research.

"With that correct balance, totally awesome idea," he said. "But if they lose that other aspect, it could be detrimental, I think, especially with the influx of people. ... I just really hope they can use that money for the best of Minnesota residents and this local community."

What's next?

The next step for the loon center is to secure funding. Heggerston said the total project cost is about $6.7 million, and the foundation has applied for grants.

At the end of June, foundation members will go to St. Paul and state their case for a $4 million grant from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. Heggerston said the loon center foundation's application for the grant is on the shortlist of about 100 others that earned an interview. But private philanthropy of about $850,000 would be needed for the grant as well. If the LCCMR grant comes through for the loon center, the project would have to be completed in 2021.

The foundation is also hoping for money from the Open Oceans Trustee Implementation Group, which grants federal funds from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Heggerston said no final decisions on funding from either the state for federal levels will likely be made until the fall.

"If we don't have state support this year, we'll have to go back and ask for it next year," she said in a phone interview, adding that the foundation will make a strong push for private and corporate sponsorship if the LCCMR funding doesn't come through.

Local state Reps. Josh Heintzeman and Dale Lueck, along with Congressman Rick Nolan, expressed their support for the project Saturday, June 9, during a loon center kick-off event at Crosslake Lutheran Church that attracted more than 200 people.

"It's a real project now, and we know it's feasible," Heggerston said. "We're ready to build the loon center. We just need to be funded."

Anyone who wants to learn more about the National Loon Center or is interested in donating to the cause can visit www.nationallooncenter.org, call 218-822-4889 or follow the National Loon Center Facebook page.