Rendering by MRV Architects of the proposed Ocean Interpretation Center featuring the bronze whale statue.

Rendering by MRV Architects of the proposed Ocean Interpretation Center featuring the bronze whale statue.

Whale, what now?

How do you change the planned location of a giant bronze whale statue? One proposal at a time. That’s how several Juneau residents have tried, anyway.

Only a few weeks after another such request failed, a new group is requesting yet another location change — at least the fourth since the Assembly chose a home for the whale three years ago. This proposal, however, may be the most plausible to date.

Speaking to the Downtown Improvement Group on Friday morning, Bob Janes pitched the Juneau Ocean Interpretation Center, a “visitor center and maritime museum with a focus on the ocean ecology of the Alaskan Pacific.” For more than half an hour Janes described the form and function of the proposed 11,000-square-foot center.

Despite of all its many interesting features — its “earth-bermed configuration,” a roof that doubles as a viewing deck overlooking the channel, a whale-tail inspired design — it won’t be complete without one important piece, Janes said: The bronze whale statue.

“We believe that the whale needs the OIC, and the OIC needs the whale,” Janes said in an interview after the DIG meeting.

 

A home for ‘citizen science’

The OIC is result of about six months of collaboration between Janes and several other people, all of whom volunteer time and effort to bring the center to fruition. But the project has been alive, at least in hopes and aspirations, for closer to a decade, according to Janes; his wife, Dawn Wolfe; and Linda Nicklin.

The three — in addition to Nicklin’s husband, Flip, a photographer for National Geographic, and Paul Voeckers of MRV Architects — form the team that is working to get the project off the ground. Janes and Wolfe own Gastineau Guiding, where Linda works as a tour guide trainer. But this center is in no way a business venture of Gastineau Guiding, Janes said.

“None of us are planning to profit personally or as Gastineau Guiding,” he said. “We want to give.”

And what they hope to give through the center, which they said will operate as a nonprofit, is an appreciation for science and for the environment. According to Janes and Linda Nicklin, the center will stay open all year long, functioning as both a visitor center and a community center.

It will serve as a hub for “citizen science,” giving people who are not necessarily scientists a chance to engage in scientific research, Nicklin said. Through “interactive exhibits” about the ocean and its inhabitants and “workshops and seminars,” Janes said the center will send people away interested in environmental stewardship.

“If we can do that, at least a little bit here, then we will have accomplished our goal,” he said.

But accomplishing that goal will be anything but easy.

 

“Synergy” needed

As planned, the center will sit off of Egan Drive next to the empty lot owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust. The problem with this is that the land currently isn’t land at all — it’s water, and also the location of the Avista dock.

In order to build the center, Janes and his team, all of whom are working as volunteers, have proposed destroying the Avista dock, which currently stands in their way, and filling the channel to create a plateau. They haven’t gotten Avista’s permission to take out the dock yet, but Janes said the Spokane-based power company has expressed interest in working out some sort of deal with them.

The man-made plateau, if the group gets their way, will be the home of the center (designed by Voelckers), the whale sculpture and possibly the Fisherman’s Memorial. But this project won’t be cheap. All told, it’s likely to cost $12.9 million.

If there is one thing that Janes made abundantly clear at the DIG meeting and afterward, it’s that he believes “synergy” is crucial if the center is to succeed. And to him synergy means collocating the whale and the center. A large part of this is because Janes and his team see the whale as a vital tool to help fundraise for the project and to pay for its maintenance once it is operating.

“We’re looking for synergy between us, the whale and other players like the Fisherman’s Memorial,” Janes said, explaining how collocating the center and other attractions could create a one-stop shop of sorts for tourists. Most cruise passengers, after all, only get to spend six or seven hours in Juneau, Janes said.

He and his team see the whale as a crucial component of fundraising efforts, which he said will be “national” in scope. The whale, he said, will help the project get the attention it needs.

Janes said that he will not begin fundraising until the project has secured the whale. Without the whale, Janes said he will not likely be able to pursue the ocean center further at this time, if at all.

 

Not a “zero-sum game”

Cost is not the only potential barrier between the Janes gang and the OIC, however. The center’s supporters will need to get the go ahead from the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly, and they would like the support of the Whale Project, which isn’t looking likely. At least not in the way Janes would like.

Former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, president of the Whale Project, attended the DIG meeting Friday to listen to Janes, but it wasn’t the first time Botelho has heard the pitch. Janes met with the whale project Board of Directors at the end of June to request that the whale location change. Though he likes the idea of the OIC, it is this that troubles Botelho and the other Whale Project members.

“We are very supportive of the concept of the OIC,” he said. “The point of contention is whether the Whale Project, which is in its ninth year, should be asked to be delayed further for this.”

Janes thinks that the proposed site for the OIC will be better for the whale since it is closer to downtown and more central to business than the planned location, which is near the Juneau-Douglas Bridge. Janes estimates that he will be able to have the whale in place by fall of next year, which is a few months after Botelho’s date of July 4, 2016.

Botelho, however, fears that this won’t be “a delay of months but a delay of years” because Janes’ project is still in its infancy. At this point, Botelho and many of the Whale Project’s other members have been working on this project for close to a decade. During this time, two of the board’s members, including Bill Overstreet who first proposed the project, have died. For this reason and others, Botelho wants to move ahead with the project as planned.

“We feel a degree of obligation to those who entrusted us with their money to get the whale in place,” he said. “To have certainty and finality and to give that up for a project that, at this point, is a concept with no funding or certainty of completion is not something that our board is willing to do.”

Botelho and his fellow board members are amenable to other options to get the whale to the OIC. He suggested installing the whale near the bridge for now and moving it to the center once it is complete, which should take three to five years by Janes’ estimate.

“We don’t want to detract from the Ocean Interpretation Center because we think it’s a great idea,” he said. “This should not be a zero-sum game in terms of support for the whale or the interpretive center. Both of them will add great value to Juneau.”

Moving a 6-ton, 27-foot-tall bronze whale and the circular pool — somewhere between 60 and 100 feet in diameter — in which it stands will likely not prove enviable even by the likes of Captain Ahab. Botelho says he does not know how much such a task would cost.

 

It takes an Assembly to move a whale

Though Janes doesn’t favor Botelho’s plan, he said he will not yet be deterred. He will present his plan to several groups this month in hopes of winning support for the proposed OIC, which was generally well-received by the 40 or so people at Friday’s DIG meeting.

Janes’ tour de whale will culminate in a presentation at the Assembly work session at the end of the month. This will likely be the most important pitch Janes and his crew make because the Assembly is the governing body which will ultimately decide the fate of the proposal.

Assembly member Loren Jones listened to Janes’ presentation at the DIG, and though he was impressed, he said he still has questions that need answering.

“My first thought was that this is a very broad, far-reaching, interesting proposal,” Jones said. “It has a lot going for it and what it would mean for Juneau. My second thought: I’m really concerned about how many ‘what ifs’ come with this proposal.”

Not the least of which is the timing, according to Jones. Following so closely on the heels of Wednesday’s fiscal forum, which painted a fairly grim picture regarding the state’s economic outlook, this proposal comes with a lofty price tag. Jones worries that it might be hard to secure the nearly $13 million required for the project. And that’s on top of other factors the Assembly will have to take into consideration, including the matter of releasing the land — via lease or disposal — for the project.

Though Janes’ will certainly have his work cut out for him if he is to sway the Assembly to approve his proposal, he is adamant about maintaining a positive attitude.

“Everything is possible,” Janes said. “There’s a time and place for everything, and this is the time and place for this interpretive center in Juneau. We just need to work together to make it happen. This needs to be a unified effort.”

• Sam DeGrave can be reached at sam.degrave@juneauempire.com or at (907) 523-2279.

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