Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Yahoo, Mat-Su's new view - someday

Homestead RV Park, the first RV park one encounters when driving to the Valley from Anchorage, has been shuttered all summer. For locals that means fewer traffic delays from motorhomes turning there but it’s led many to ask what’s in store for the spot, which has stunning views of Pioneer Peak and the Palmer Hay Flats.

Currently, Matanuska Electric Association owns the land, which includes acreage both on top of and below the bluff, including land along the flats. MEA spokeswoman Suzie Deuser said the cooperative needs the land for a larger right-of-way path as part of its Eklutna natural gas power plant project. But MEA is working with Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau to use the prime property up top as a new spot for the Mat-Su Visitor Information Center.

Here's a clip from the May 2011 Gateway Gathering, where community leaders and MSCVB members toured and gave feedback on the best spot for a new visitor center. The clip begins at the state park across the highway from the RV park; at about the one-minute mark participants visit the RV park. 

MSCVB has been housed for more than 20 years in a prow-front log cabin near Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. The visitor center predates the hospital and, with changes to the traffic flow from the expanded Parks Highway, hospital access and, most recently, Trunk Road, visitors to the center arrive with exclamations of “We finally made it!” said MSCVB director Bonnie Quill.

Quill said their visitor numbers are down significantly because of the easy-to-spot but hard-to-reach location. Fewer visitors mean fewer opportunities to suggest that tourists take a tour of local farms, stay overnight at a bed-and-breakfast or take a backcountry four-wheeler tour.

So MSCVB has been working for five years to find the perfect spot for a new visitor center. A federal grant helped narrow the list from 12 sites to one: the Homestead RV Park. In addition to an amazing view, Quill said the site is located ideally – it’s near the juncture of the Matanuska and Susitna valleys and has easy access just off the highway.

It’s also across the street from a state park Quill called a gem – Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area. The two facilities could work together, she said, with MSCVB providing overflow parking on sunny days when park traffic trails out onto the highway. She’s even spoken with state Department of Transportation officials about installing an under- or overpass to allow traffic to go from one side to the other safely when the Glenn Highway is expanded.

Photo courtesy MSCVB
The existing visitor center has limited space for meetings
but sits on valuable commercial land.
Ideally, Quill said, the new visitor center will be 20,000 square feet, with outside interpretive areas and space for community gatherings. It's comparable to the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center near Portage and, in a 2010 preliminary study, the cost to build was pegged at $14 million.

The only thing blocking MSCVB staff from packing up their offices at the log cabin and making the move is, well, money. Quill said she’s applied for $2 million in federal National Scenic Byways funding for site acquisition and design but was turned down. Another application just for site acquisition funding was also turned down. She said she’ll pursue state funding during the upcoming legislative session.

The center does have funding behind the plan. The Mat-Su Borough owns the 4.6 acres the visitor center sits on but the Assembly last year agreed to sell the land and dedicate the proceeds to the new visitor center. It’s hard to say exactly how much the land might sell for; land sales in that area have been quite competitive, Quill said.

Without money for the project in hand, Quill said it was impossible to say when the new visitor center would be built. But she plans to be talking up the project everywhere she can in the next year, so she hopes the project won’t stay on the shelf long.

-- Rindi White

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