ANCHORAGE - There are days in the summer when a tour bus - sometimes two - will drop off upward of 200 visitors to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Elmendorf Hatchery, a four-man operation that is in charge of rearing the bulk of Anchorage's salmon population on a small parcel of land off Post Road and Reeve Boulevard.
When this happens, often without notice, one or more of the employees will stop what they are doing and try to play host to the visitors, who are curious to learn more about one of Alaska's most valued natural resources.
Scenarios such as these prompted the department to approach Anchorage officials two years ago with an idea that is a long time coming: a world-class salmon learning center in conjunction with a planned improved hatchery.
The joint venture will be located just off Ship Creek, at the existing hatchery.
Last week, officials hosted one of what they hope will be several public planning meetings to get input on the multimillion-dollar project. About 25 people showed up for the work session, which included presentations by architects, city officials and hatchery workers.
"This would be a pretty spectacular salmon learning center," said Municipal Creeks Community Development Manager David Wigglesworth.
"Ship Creek is the third largest sportfishing area in the state, so it makes sense that it be in alignment with the fishing that goes on there. I think in terms of location and the amenities in the area this is the ideal location," he said.
Fish and Game has been planning its hatchery for years, said Jeff Milton, regional hatchery supervisor.
While there is no cost estimate yet for the project, a surcharge on fishing licenses instituted two years ago is earmarked for the project.
"We're hoping to actually break ground on site prep this summer," Milton said. "As far as facility construction, that won't start until next year, in 2009."
Fish and Game's funding will not be enough to pay for all of the salmon learning center, although they have pledged some money, Wigglesworth said.
The total cost for the learning center will likely be between $15 million and $20 million.
Once firm plans are in place, the search for more funding - whether through state, federal and/or private agencies - will begin.
"When Fish and Game came to Mayor Begich a couple of years ago and talked about development of the new hatchery ... the mayor and Mary Jane Michael (municipal economic and community development director) got very excited about it," he said.
"The fact that Ship Creek is a draw to our community, and brings in people from all over the state, makes this a great match."
The vision also is in line with the city's recently formed "Salmon in the City" initiative, which showcases the value of salmon in Anchorage and throughout the rest of Alaska.
"Salmon bring an economic benefit of $7.2 million annually (to the state)," she said. "All of the businesses in the Southcentral area benefit from the proximity of Ship Creek."
"When you think about a facility like this, it will keep people in Anchorage a little longer and that ripples throughout the economy," Wigglesworth said.
The current hatchery is an aging facility, around since the late '60s and consisting of several worn-down, metal-sided outbuildings and sheds. It was originally created to stock lakes for the military, Milton said, but has since grown to provide fish for lakes and streams throughout Anchorage.
A few interpretive signs have been placed around the facility to guide those wandering onto the site. There is a crude viewing platform at the northeast corner of the 6-acre-plus facility.
But for the most part, the hatchery is a missed opportunity for fish enthusiasts to see the salmon-rearing process under way.
In front of a metal-sided building that serves as the hatchery office, Milton raised a massive garage door to unveil a small round tank and an oversized bulletin board filled with photos taken at the hatchery. It was crammed among tools and equipment, leaving room for perhaps a half-dozen people at a time to crowd in and view the displays.
"This is what we use as a visitor center," he told the group touring the facility on Saturday. Often school classes visit the facility and the facility is crude, at best, for instruction, he said.
The new hatchery will be a 20- to 25-foot structure built atop what is now a cooling pond. Existing buildings for storage will remain, as well as housing for year-round hatchery workers.
Milton said the existing shop also will be salvaged but given a face-lift to blend in well with a learning center.
Design ideas are just now being discussed for the salmon learning center, but proponents hope to include a Ship Creek bike and hiking path that spurs off Reeve Boulevard and follows the creek.
The salmon learning center would be between the path and the hatchery, with parking for buses and other vehicles to the south.
An improved viewing deck would lead visitors to a holding pond, where hundreds of salmon congregate and can be seen in a natural setting.
"We'll begin to nail down the specifics as we get more input from the community," Wigglesworth said.
The Alaska chapter of the American Institute of Architects has gotten involved too, offering ideas as part of a 150-year celebration that focuses on creating community-minded projects.
As community ideas are shared on the project, the AIA architects will incorporate those into the final renderings of the center.
The hope is to complete the salmon learning center by 2010, said Wigglesworth and Michael, but a lot of work is left to be done.
When completed, though, it will be a world-class facility that is much-needed, Michael said.
"One of the things we've been doing is improvements to Ship Creek, with a lot of bank restoration, protecting the environment down there and trying to control how people access the beaches," Michael said. "(The learning center) would be more about viewing on that end of the creek. We've been working hard on Ship Creek and this is a good opportunity. The center also affords us the opportunity to bring in some of the cultural aspect of fish and fishing in our state. There is a rich history of use and that, I think, adds to the richness and the experience that visitors can have."