Architect Paul Voelkers, of MRV Architects, talks about a proposal for a Juneau Ocean Center that would sit between the U.S. Coast Guard's Station Juneau and Gold Creek on Juneau's downtown waterfront.

Architect Paul Voelkers, of MRV Architects, talks about a proposal for a Juneau Ocean Center that would sit between the U.S. Coast Guard's Station Juneau and Gold Creek on Juneau's downtown waterfront.

Proposed ocean center moves beyond the bronze whale

The minds behind the Juneau Ocean Center are moving forward with the project — with or without the whale sculpture they sought to relocate last fall.

“We’ve sort of moved on from the conversation about the whale,” JOC board member Linda Nicklin said Friday morning, when she and two other board members met with the Empire. “We’re open to receiving the whale, but we’re not advocating for it.”

Board members Bob Janes and Paul Voelckers, also at Friday’s meeting, said that the project has matured greatly since October, when Janes told the Empire that the center, formerly known as the Juneau Oceans Interpretation Center, “needs the whale.”

[Whale, now what? Group proposes Ocean Interpretation Center, changing whale statue location.]

“We kind of changed course,” Janes said Friday. “We realized the reality of the day, and we’ve really added a lot more breadth to the park. The whole project has developed. It’s much better.”

Added Voelckers: “There’s a lot more to this site than whether it’s the right place for the whale,” he said, explaining that the center will function as a hybrid between a visitor center and an educational hub that will serve many roles throughout the year.

In the summer it will play host to about 150,000 cruise ship tourists, Janes estimates. In the off-season, Nicklin said she hopes it will be used for educational trips for schools and as a meeting hall for anybody willing to rent it out. The city’s seawalk leading to the whale sculpture at Bridge Park will also pass in front of the center. 

What’s new

The site’s master plan — designed by Voelckers’ firm MRV Architects — is now in its fifth iteration, and it has a few new features worth noting. Among these is a floating dock extending into the Gastineau Channel, which will allow the center to use electric boats to taxi cruise passengers back and forth through the downtown harbor to the new Panamax dock. The dock could also serve as a lightering dock for vessels anchored in the harbor, Janes said.

The center will have a parking lot big enough to accommodate several tour buses, like those that make trips to the Mendenhall Glacier, allowing the center to function as a staging area for tour companies. The way Janes envisions it, tourists would go straight from their ships to the center, then onto the glacier or other destinations. This has the potential to alleviate traffic congestion near the cruise ship docks. Perhaps more importantly, though, it enables the center to draw in more visitors.

Janes estimates that with this new dock, the center has the ability to draw in about 15 percent of the roughly one million cruise ship passengers who visit Juneau each summer.

“150,000 visitors really might be too conservative a number, but that’s what were working with,” he said. Voelckers even had to make slight design modifications to the center to make sure that it had large enough bathroom facilities to accommodate the 1,500 to 2,000 passengers that will pass through it each day.

And getting more visitors is crucial because the Janes, Voelckers and Nicklin want the nonprofit center to be entirely self-sustaining. By their estimates, the building will cost about $2.2 million to operate each year. They plan on charging $10 per taxi ride, and a $10 entry fee for the center. If they are able to pull the 150,000 tourists they hope to each summer, and if each of them use the taxi to get to the center, they’d make $3 million on cruise passengers alone.

The road ahead

All of this is still a long way off. Voelkers said that work on the seawalk portion of the project could begin as early as next summer, and the construction of the center itself could start the year after. But a lot has to happen before any shovels can meet dirt.

“They’ve generally done a good job of coming up with a very appealing concept,” City Manager Rorie Watt told the Empire in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “I think they’ve done a great job to get as far as they’ve gotten, but they’ve still got a long way to go.”

Janes and his fellow board members have yet to hash out the terms of a lease for the land on which the center will sit, nor have they begun fundraising for the project, which will cost about $14.2 million to build. Voelckers and Janes said they are hoping to lease the land for less than market value, and to receive some city money for the project since it will contain a portion of the seawalk project.

The manager’s proposed city budget does allocate about $230,000 worth of local marine passenger fee money to begin planning the seawalk, but Watt said the city hasn’t drawn any lines establishing who will ultimately be paying for what portions of the project. This conversation is made even more difficult by the fact that the JOC hasn’t raised any money yet, which Voelckers and Janes said will only begin to happen once the center has hashed out its lease agreement with the city. This is likely to happen by mid to late summer, they said. Watt thinks this is a reasonable timeline.

“You don’t really want to ask for money before you’re relatively sure you can deliver,” Voelckers said.

The JOC’s board will be hosting a public meeting at 7 p.m. May 12 at KTOO’s @360 North studio. The JOC’s board members will explain the current plan and take suggestions from those in the audience.

“We’re trying to get the community there to get ideas about what we’ve missed because we’ve just been blue-sky dreaming about how to make this the best project for the community, but we might’ve missed some things,” Voelckers said.

• Sam DeGrave can be reached at or at (907) 523-2279.

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