Visitor center eyed near harbor, highway

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate January 09, 2012 02:11 pm

Although tourism is Del Norte’s largest private sector employer, many think it could be much stronger.

Various organizations hope to boost tourism with a new multi-agency visitor center on the highway by Crescent City Harbor.

“I really believe that this community is in need of the tourism dollars that we ... somehow are not able to capture,” said Harbor Commissioner Wes White on Tuesday when the commission heard an update on the visitor center project.

Fourteen agencies have signed on to be a part of the Interagency Visitor Center, which would be built on harbor land between the inner boat basin and U.S. Highway 101. 

 The idea is to have a one-stop shop for tourism information right off the highway, encouraging more enjoyable and longer visits to Del Norte.

An existing information center on the first floor of the Redwood National and State Parks headquarters in downtown Crescent City wasn’t designed to be a visitor center, parks officials said.

“Even though we’re only a block off the highway, I think a lot of people don’t stop by our visitor center or the Chamber of Commerce” visitor center on Front Street, said Candace Tinkler of RNSP. Currently visitor centers in the county attract 50,000 to 100,000 visitors a year.

A design has not been finalized, but thanks to the Interagency Visitor Center’s  design committee and pro-bono work from Hilary Baker of Crow/Clay & Associates architecture, there is a working design concept.

The proposed two-story facility would contain 13,000-15,000 square feet of space and link the county’s natural and cultural resources together with a “watershed” theme. Most of the facility would be dedicated to displays and interpretative information about the county’s natural and cultural resources.

A 120-seat auditorium has also been proposed to show films and presentations on what Del Norte has to offer. The design concept also calls for a gift shop, conference center, restrooms and some office space.

The facility would be designed to easily accommodate tour buses and tourists.

The IAVC Design Committee is looking at a $7 million to 9 million price tag to build the center, but Redwood National Park has agreed to fund the daily operation and maintenance of the center — a significant benefit for landing grants the project needs to get off the ground and for its future viability, planners said.

“It amounts to a lot of money over the life of a building,” said Grant Werschkull, who was hired to facilitate meetings between the IAVC parties.

On Tuesday, harbor commissioners questioned the projected expense of building the facility, with costs estimated at $500 to 600 a square foot.

Werschkull said he is optimistic about fundraising, especially with 14 agencies on board.

“This is not an ordinary county with ordinary resources,” Werschkull said. “It's an extraordinary county in terms of natural resources and cultural heritage, and I think we'll be very competitive” in landing grants.

Harbor planner Ernie Perry, who is on the design committee of the project, told harbor commissioners the building needs to draw people off the highway. Now is not the time to look at scaling back the project, he said, adding that can be done later if necessary.

“There’s a reason why Trees of Mystery has Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox along the highway,” Perry said. “It works pretty good at pulling people off the road.”

Commissioner White said his hesitation on price came from the fact that he wants to see the project  come to fruition.

“I'd rather have something there that is not quite as nice but is real, rather than something that is a dream and stays a nightmare,” White said.

Werschkull said that the current cost figure hasn’t scared potential grant providers in his initial talks, and they will recognize the importance such a center could have for the community.

“This is the type of facility that matches the base of our economy,” Werschkull said. “It's our future.”

Redwood National Park, Smith River Alliance and the harbor district have provided the funding to date for planning and design.

The project is still in its early stages, with the next steps being a finalized design, completing environmental compliance requirements, and forging a memorandum of understanding that lays out the roles and level of involvement of each agency.

Werschkull said he hopes the facility will be up and running by 2016, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Harbor officials hope it will be sooner to show off their new inner boat basin slated to be complete in 2013.

Organizations on board include the California Coastal National Monument of the Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish & Game’s local wildlife areas, Redwood Coast Sector  of California Department of Parks & Recreation, City of Crescent City, Crescent City/Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce, Crescent City Harbor District, Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, Elk Valley Rancheria Tribal Council, Redwood National Park of the National Park Service, Smith River Rancheria, Tri-Agency Economic Development Authority, Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Smith River National Recreation Area of the U.S. Forest Service and the Yurok Tribal Council.

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