New wildlife refuge visitor center taking shape in Soldotna

Despite an interruption from nature, construction for the new $6 million Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Soldotna is on schedule with the completion date set for the end of September.

A bald eagle nesting in the project area halted construction on the building for 45 days late last spring. Jason Hayes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project manager, said when the nest was abandoned in early June, refuge biologist Todd Eskelin gave the OK for work to continue.

“It was a judgment call to shut down or get a permit to continue,” Hayes said. “The refuge made the right call.”

The site of the new visitor center, located next to the current center on Ski Hill Road, is within the 2 million-acre Kenai Wildlife Refuge. Bald eagles are protected by the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, which prohibits anyone from interfering with the eagle’s lifestyle without obtaining a permit issued by the Department of the Interior.

Hayes said the delay cut into ground clearing prep work, which couldn’t be done until the ground thawed in June and threatened the foundation-pouring schedule with winter looming. He said the late arrival of winter allowed the construction crew to finish its last pour just before Thanksgiving when temperatures got down to 20 degrees.

“It’s amazing how it ended up working out,” he said. “The eagles nesting didn’t impact our schedule after all.”

After a two-week holiday hiatus, construction resumed Jan. 6. Jim Sterling, senior project manager for SIKU Construction, said the concrete foundation and a retaining wall by the front entrance were completed by Thanksgiving. The crew is now in the process of steel framing the 6,500-square-foot facility. Sterling said the roof should be complete by the end of February and work should move to the interior.

Sterling said the partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service has been very detailed oriented.

The state-of-the-art facility is being built to LEED Silver environmental and energy efficiency building standards, Hayes said. The center will have solar panels, which will produce 9 percent of the building’s electricity, and a sod roof providing additional insulation and reducing heating costs. Skylights and plenty of windows will let daylight in and the ventilation system will let warm air out at night and bring in fresh air, he said.

“It is not only about conservation but about creating a pleasant work environment without spending lots of money,” Hayes said. “Daylight improves the workers’ moods and the visitors’ experiences.”

Another requirement to earn the LEED Silver rating is using local materials and contractors. Sterling said he brought in Peninsula Construction for all the civil work and nearly every laborer on the job site lives on the Kenai Peninsula.

He also contracted Davis Block and Concrete, Morgan Steel, Big Mike’s trucking haul and Kachemak Electric.

The visitor center amenities will include: 1,800-square-foot exhibit hall for interpretative displays, a bookstore, an 80-person capacity multi-purpose educational room, a sales lobby and three offices. A moose sculpture and an artistic fish mural built into the concrete floor slab will represent the nature and history of the region, Hayes said.

With more than one million annual visitors, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge sees the most visitors in the state, Refuge Manager Andy Loranger said. The current center is 34 years old and will be renovated into offices for the 36 refuge employees.

Once the new building is complete, displays and other items from the current center will be moved and the old facility will be gutted. The renovation cost is $4 million and brings the entire project total to $10 million.

The location of the new center is in the path of one of the refuge ski trails, but Loranger said the trail will be rerouted with the trailhead starting at the front entrance of the new building.

Loranger said the refuge is in the beginning stages of planning for the grand opening in late September with the center serving as a hub for the refuge’s more popular events like berry foraging and full moon telescope parties.

Hayes said the new center will be an incredible asset to the Kenai Peninsula community.

“People will be impressed and have a wonderful experience from the time they get out of their car to the time they leave,” Hayes said. “To see the history of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge — the SIKU design team did an amazing job. It cannot compare to any other refuge.”

Dan Balmer is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He can be reached at