National Eagle Center expands facilities and mission

a bald eagle perches on a mans hand
A National Eagle Center staff member holds a bald eagle used in educational programs at the center in Wabasha.
Courtesy of the National Eagle Center

The National Eagle Center has been closed since last fall for phase one of a renovation and expansion.

Center CEO Meg Gammage-Tucker says the work is funded through $8 million approved by the state legislature 2018, and private fundraising efforts.

"Phase one is a total of about $6.3 million, which includes renovation of the riverfront building, partial renovation of two buildings on Main Street, an open space amphitheater as well as 240 feet of dockage for large vessels," she said.

The National Eagle Center opened in Wabasha in 1989 and moved to a new facility near the Mississippi River in 2007.

Phase two of the current project is $21 million and will include renovation of historic buildings on Main Street in Wabasha and construction of an auditorium for live eagle programs.

a red brick and glass building
The National Eagle Center in Wabasha is opening after being closed for a six month renovation and expansion project.
Courtesy of the National Eagle Center

The center has four eagles and a hawk that are used in educational presentations.

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"We are the only organization in the country that has been designated by Congress as a National Eagle Center. And we need to lean into that,” said Gammage-Tucker.

"Our new vision is to be in a world where eagles are known. Simple as that. We want people to understand and connect with them in whatever way we can because they're iconic, they inspire, and they're our national symbol."

The center is continuing its long time partnership with the Prairie Island Indian Community which has made multiple contributions to the center over the years. Gammage-Tucker said it's important to recognize the significance of the eagle to many Indigenous peoples.

"And we honor that in the community. We also want to honor that with our exhibits and partnerships, as well as programming,” she said.

While the U.S. bald eagle population has made a remarkable recovery since the center opened in 1989, Gammage-Tucker says there are still environmental threats. Those include lead poisoning from fishing tackle and ammunition, collisions with wind turbines and motor vehicles and illegal hunting of the protected species.

"So while it's a great success story, and we're thrilled that it's gone from a few hundred nesting pairs to several thousand, we want to make sure that people understand that we can't go back the other way,” said Gammage-Tucker. “There are still things that impact them, and there are a lot of things that are impacting the environment that we have to pay attention to."

The renovated Eagle Center will have a new attraction, a large collection of artifacts focused on eagles.

a bald eagle
One of the bald eagles used for educational purposes by the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. Eagles kept by the center were injured and are unable to be returned to the wild. The center just completed a six month renovation and expansion project.
Courtesy of the National Eagle Center

Marketing manager Ed Hahn said Preston Cook, a retired real estate investor and Wabasha resident, spent 50 years amassing thousands of items which he donated to the center.

“What's really impressive about it is just the breadth and scope of his collection,” said Hahn. “It almost defies imagination.”

"All sorts of memorabilia and artifacts and historical pieces that really do span everything from political history to sports to arts to culture to everyday Americana really, throughout the whole history of our nation," he said.

Hahn expects the collection to broaden the appeal of the center.

“I think the fact that it has pieces of fine art, it's going to open our experience to a whole new group of people who may not have considered coming to the National Eagle Center before, because they said, ‘I’m not into nature as much, or I’m not into eagles.’ But now there's this whole new experience within the center that's going to touch on the humanities, history, arts and culture, said Hahn.

In recent years, the center has averaged about 80,000 visitors annually according to Gammage-Tucker, who said with the expansion, the annual target is now at least 120,000 visitors.

The center will also invest more in virtual education programming developed during the pandemic.

"And then our virtual programs will be able to literally have us continue to reach out worldwide, and to grow that capacity by millions, if at all possible," Gammage-Tucker said.

"So we're really, really excited about the opportunities in front of us."