Eagle center gets infusion of cash

At the Eagle Center
Angel, a bald eagle who lives at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota.
MPR PhotoLorna Benson

The current National Eagle Center is located in a humble, cramped, downtown storefront. Two small rooms make up the entire center.

Current center
The National Eagle Center in Wabasha has outgrown its space.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

The first is filled with eagle merchandise, stacks of information on eagles, and Harriet -- one of the center's star eagles. The back room is home to Columbia and Angel. "Come on. Come on," eagle handler Jerry Knabe uses a long, black glove to coax Angel onto his forearm. Then he heads out to the back deck overlooking the river.

"She likes the sun," Knabe said. "Sometimes she'll put her wings out, soak up some vitamin D. She's fun to watch."

Within minutes, Angel stretches out her wings and puffs out the feathers on her chest. She's an instant magnet to anyone nearby.

Wabasha leaders have long recognized the birds' potential. Despite its cramped, dismal home, the National Eagle Center attracted 30,000 visitors last year.

Jerry Arens, co-chair of the center's capital campaign, hopes the new center on the banks of the Mississippi River will attract 100,000 or more each year.

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Angel outside
Angel and her handler, Jerry Knabe, stand along the Mississippi Riverfront in Wabasha.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Arens says the center will give visitors a chance to see the birds even in foul weather conditions.

"We're very fortunate in the area of Wabasha," Arens said. "Because we are near Reads Landing and near our own city where the Mississippi River, because of the structure of the current, does not freeze -- and this provides an opportunity for eagles to feed year round. Even when it's extremely cold and most of the areas of the river and lake are frozen over with ice."

Eagles have made a dramatic comeback from the days when DDT weakened their eggs and resulted in a huge population decline. The birds are doing so well now, that they're expected to be removed soon from the federal Endangered Species List.

Arens says even though there are many more eagles today, the birds are still an unusual sight for many people.

New center
This sketch shows the design of the new National Eagle Center to be built in Wabasha.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

"Although there may be a lot of eagles up and down the corridor of the Mississippi River, when you get away from the river the opportunity to see eagles is not nearly as plentiful as it is in this area," said Arens. "So I think it is a success story, and it's a wonderful story."

So far the National Eagle Center has raised about $3 million toward its goal of $4.3 million. The state of Minnesota contributed $500,000, and Monday the Prairie Island Indian Community gave an additional $500,000 contribution.

Tribal Treasurer Alan Childs says the tribe contributed to the center because the eagle is an important part of Native American culture.

"They fly the highest of all the birds, and when they fly so high, what we believe is they're the closest to our creato,r and in doing that they're blessed," said Childs.

Honor song
Alan Childs, a member of the Prairie Island band, sings an honor song during the groundbreaking event.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Later at the groundbreaking ceremony, Child's performed an honor song for the eagles.

After the ceremony, Wabasha Mayor Peter Klas said the main mission of the new center is to celebrate the eagle and teach visitors about the importance of protecting the environment. But he says the city is also anxious to improve the economics of the area.

Klas says once the new center is complete, it will be one of three attractions along the river, including Winona's new marine museum and Red Wing's interpretive center.

"And when we think about the potential of people coming to visit this area, stopping in Winona, stopping here in Wabasha and then perhaps up in Red Wing at the Interpretive Center up there, it'll be an exciting trip for families," said Klas. "They can spend four, five days just in this area, and we're really excited about that."

Construction on the new National Eagle Center is expected to be finished within a year.