The National Eagle Center in Wabasha will shut down later this month as work on a multimillion-dollar expansion gets underway, with plans for a spring reopening.
A first phase will bring new classroom and exhibit spaces, an outdoor amphitheater, a larger boat dock and renovations to the center's riverside building and two buildings it owns along Wabasha's Main Street.
"It is just going to be great," said Meg Gammage-Tucker, the organization's CEO.
The center, founded in 1989 by volunteers who followed the winter migration of eagles to Wabasha, opened on the banks of the Mississippi River in 2007, with two floors of exhibits and several captive eagles that had been rehabilitated after severe injuries.
Its popularity grew, and the center started talking about an expansion five years ago, said Gammage-Tucker. The state Legislature approved an $8 million bond fund for the project, and private donations have totaled about $5 million so far. That was enough to launch the first phase of renovations; Gammage-Tucker said fundraising will continue for a second phase that would include a larger indoor auditorium and new entry.
The work will upgrade the center's captive eagle exhibit, providing space for three more birds in addition to the three bald eagles and one red-tailed hawk currently living there. Some of the birds came from the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, where they were tended to after near-fatal injuries.
The Prairie Island Indian Community donated $1 million to the renovation, helping to kick-start the work as fundraising continues. When the Eagle Center reopens, it will include new exhibit information documenting the relationship between the tribe and eagles, said Franky Jackson, the compliance officer for the Prairie Island Indian Community's Tribal Historic Preservation Office.
"When you go there right now there's an absent narrative," he said. "There's basically no mention of Native Americans' connection to the eagle." Some of the new exhibits will share the tribe's historical connection to the bird, a bond so strong that tribal members view the eagle as a relative, Jackson said.
Two local Native artists will be hired to help with the redesign, he said, as the tribe strengthens its connection to the Eagle Center.
The tribe plans to one day build an avian rehabilitation center of its own on tribal land. Those plans are still coming together, but "it speaks to the tribe's interest in helping to care for the long-term treatment of those birds and understanding our responsibility to our winged relatives," he said.
When the center reopens, it will also have more room to display the 25,000-piece eagle collection of private collector Preston Cook. The collection includes all things eagles, from artwork to flags, Civil War memorabilia to items associated with the Apollo 11 landing.
Eagles flock to the Wabasha area in winter because the Mississippi River typically stays free of ice near the city. Bald eagles continue to fish and scavenge along the shoreline, and golden eagles also migrate to the region, though they typically hunt field game such as turkeys. A census last winter counted 140 golden and more than 1,000 bald eagles in the region.
The center will hold outdoor events this winter as the renovations are underway, said Gammage-Tucker. "The busiest time to see eagles, in the wild, is in the winter," she said. "It's a wonderful time."
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