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National Loon Center project garners $4 million grant

A loon stretches and flaps its wings early on a misty morning on Gull Lake. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

CROSSLAKE—The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources allocated $4 million for the proposed National Loon Center in Crosslake.

The center will work to restore and protect loon habitats, promote and enhance outdoor recreation, and be a leader in research and education related to migratory wildlife, a news release stated. Once completed, the center will rely on gift and admission sales, educational programming and donations to fund operations.

Plans call for a 15,000-square-foot facility to be constructed, housing the Freshwater Institute, Crosslake Chamber of Commerce offices, interactive exhibits and multipurpose rooms for the community. Piers will expand beyond the building into the bay, offering viewing and education opportunities. In addition, visitors will be able to take bike rides and collect water samples for testing back at the center.

"The National Loon Center will be a tremendous asset to our community, and I want to thank the members of the LCCMR for their support for this project that will protect and promote our state bird," Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, stated in the release. "This will be a destination for thousands of Minnesotans each year, and help drive additional tourism dollars to our district."

Lauding it as a visually pleasing, tangible attraction balancing environmental tourism and education, state Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, co-chair of the LCCMR board, said the National Loon Center is estimated to bring in 40,000 to 70,000 people or more a year, based on similar facilities in the state.

Though, Heintzeman noted, these places don't have the tourism-centric communities around them like the National Loon Center will have, which may mean an even higher influx.

"(The grant) really goes a heck of a long way, because, of course, there's matching dollars," Heintzeman told the Dispatch during a phone interview Friday, July 20. "A lot of what we've done in the past is research related and so on and so forth—the Aquatic Invasive Species Center (in Falcon Heights) comes to mind—so this is always a fun one to do, something people can walk up, feel and touch."

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. Previously, 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.

The LCCMR is made up of 17 members: five state senators, five state representatives, five people appointed by the governor, one appointed by the Minnesota Senate and one appointed by the Minnesota House. The function of the LCCMR is to make funding recommendations to the Legislature for special environment and natural resource projects, primarily from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. The trust fund is made up primarily of funds from lottery proceeds as part of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1988.