Bear Center at a crossroads

by Tom Coombe

The next few months may go a long way in determining if a full-scale bear museum will be located in the Ely area.<BR><BR>For the last two years, the North American Bear Center has maintained a presence in Ely through a downtown storefront mini-museum, while boosters raised money for the development of a larger facility just outside of town.<BR><BR>And while the group has raised about half of the $1.3 million they need to launch the project, several obstacles remain.<BR><BR>NABC Executive Director Bob Matson said fundraising remains a primary issue.<BR><BR>“It’s a critical time for us right now,” said Matson. “Our major donors have not yet renewed their annual commitment, and we find ourselves at a critical juncture regarding operations funding.”<BR><BR>And at the same time, NABC supporters are scrambling to relocate the mini-museum.<BR><BR>Radio Shack has purchased the Sheridan Street building now leased by the NABC, forcing the group to find a new home for the summer.<BR><BR>“First things first, we have to move the storefront exhibit,” said Matson. “That is the first thing we’re looking for. We are currently looking for some viable alternatives, really any viable option. We are a tourist venue so it has to be viable.”<BR><BR>The mini-museum has proven to be a hit, especially during the last two summer seasons. It included bear photos and small exhibits.<BR><BR>Matson estimated that thousands of people went through the NABC storefront since it opened.<BR><BR>“I think we’re on our third guestbook and only one in 10 people probably sign the guestbook.”<BR><BR>Meanwhile, the effort continues to locate the NABC on a permanent basis outside of town.<BR><BR>A major capital campaign kicked off in 2002, after NABC proponents found someone who’s apparently willing to purchase the property now occupied by Emma’s Bed and Breakfast on Highway 169 and turn it over to the non-profit group for development of the bear center.<BR><BR>In 2003, St. Louis County’s planning commission approved a conditional use permit that would allow for a bear center at that site.<BR><BR>Matson said the Highway 169 site is still under consideration, as is another, unidentified site outside of town but within ‘a mile or two’ of Ely.<BR><BR>Supporters say they need to collect about $1.3 million in private contributions, including $650,000 to purchase the property, to develop a bear center that would incorporate educational programs, interactive exhibits, research laboratories and facilities for bears in need of clinical rehabilitation.<BR><BR>But Matson said last week that the group may not need as much money as first anticipated.<BR><BR>“Several new initiatives have allowed us to rethink the total dollar amount so this may be attainable on a much quicker basis for less money,” said Matson.<BR><BR>If all goes well, Matson said it’s possible that there could be a groundbreaking yet this year for a new museum, but the NABC is still shy of what it needs to move forward, prompting a call for more business support.<BR><BR>“We would like to ask the business community of Ely and the area to show their support,” said Matson.<BR><BR>In the works for several years, the NABC would include exhibits centering on the research of biologist Lynn Rogers of Ely and would include areas for bear viewing.<BR><BR>According to a study completed by the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a bear center would have an annual economic impact of $1.5 million on the Ely area.<BR><BR>NABC supporters say the project will provide a natural tie-in with existing entities including the International Wolf Center, Vermilion Community College and the area’s flourishing tourism market.<BR><BR>• NABC representatives have asked that anyone who may have a storefront location available for rent to contact them at 365-7879.<BR><BR>