In a matter of days, throngs of people will marvel as sea lionsand seals plunge into deep habitat pools at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Children will shriek as they touch starfish in the center's petting exhibit.
Huge displays will point out how little we know about the waters of Resurrection Bay and the Gulf of Alaska. In the foyer, a pod of life-size porpoises will hang from the ceiling, frozen in their pursuit of a school of herring. Projection screens will show video images taken from the rocky shore a few miles away.
With all that going on, probably nobody will take a second glance at the center's seven new cash registers.
Yet those ordinary machines, which will spit out $12.50 admission tickets and gift shop receipts, are at the core of what might be the single biggest economic shift anyone in Seward has seen for decades -- perhaps since the 1964 earthquake wiped out the port and sent hundreds of longshoremen packing for new jobs on the West Coast.
The SeaLife Center's cash registers should add to a spike in Seward's already giddy rise in summer retail sales. Beyond that, the center's very location on the south side of town could alter everyday life for the estimated 3,000 residents of this 96-year-old city.
Nobody's certain how it will all play out, once the $52 million state-of-the-art marine research facility opens to the public with a huge party on Saturday.
But one emerging theory among people who live here is that more visitors will filter through the old downtown business district, perhaps stopping to shop, buy lunch or rent a hotel room on their way to the bright new building at the foot of Fourth Avenue.
''It's going to really change the face of Seward, hopefully for the better,'' said Dennis Treadwell, owner of Starbird Studio, a Fourth Avenue art gallery.
''It's exciting having a world-class facility in such a small town. It'll be kind of like having a business in the parking lot of Disneyland.''
One of Seward's oldest restaurants, Christo's Palace, is in the middle of a $150,000 face lift, anticipating a new wave of visitors to the formerly quiet waterfront on the south side of Seward.
''The whole town is getting ready,'' said Marina Manolakakis, co-owner of the restaurant.
Some of that business could trickle into fall and winter, traditionally a quiet time when many of Seward's shops literally board up their windows and hibernate.
In the darker season, school buses will ferry students who have paid to spend a day or camp overnight at the SeaLife Center. A major part of the center's outreach involves slumber parties in which students will drop their sleeping bags next to windows overlooking the three rookeries where sea lions, seals and sea birds live.
In addition, some 50 to 60 employees will commute to work, along with visiting researchers who have paid to use the center's laboratories to study marine mammals, fish or birds.
Whether that winter activity will significantly boost the economy is anyone's guess.
The SeaLife Center won't be the only large employer in town. A few blocks away, the 67 employees at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center train future oil workers, cooks and boat builders. And the state Spring Creek maximum security prison on the other side of Resurrection Bay employs 217 people.
Still, some observers say, the SeaLife Center could give the city's hot-and-cold, tourist-driven economy a further dose of stability.
''The idea of a summer-winter season is fading,'' Seward Mayor Bob Satin said.
''And the SeaLife Center will help bring that about.''
Can Seward handle it?
Some 275,000 people are expected to pass those seven cash registers during the SeaLife Center's first year, with most coming this summer.
But can Seward's turn-of-the-century street design, which has yet to see its first traffic light, withstand a crush of automobile and bus traffic?
An environmental impact statement prepared in 1994, before the center was built, says the heaviest traffic occurs on the north end of town -- where tourists flood the city harbor for fishing trips or boat tours to Kenai Fjords National Park.
Already, some downtown merchants are calling for two-hour time limits for on-street parkers.
But city government is taking a cautious approach, and may wait a year to see if the projected crowds -- and cars -- turn up.
''We're all looking at trying to do things, but the wheels are spinning at the moment,'' said Kerry Martin, Seward's community development director.
Seward has an attractive, compact downtown. Storefronts hug the curb, giving the district a close, friendly feel. It's easy to walk down Fourth Avenue from shop to shop, which is what residents did when the street system was designed in 1906.
Automobiles weren't a fact of life then. People walked, rode horses and drove dog teams. Nobody in that era would have figured that each store might one day need its own parking lot, Martin said.
The SeaLife Center has built its own 170-space paid parking lot, but will visitors opt for the free street parking in town, creating congestion?
SeaLife Center's new approach
The idea for a Seward marine research center was born in the late 1980s, before the Exxon Valdez oil spill. City leaders originally wanted to expand the University of Alaska Fairbanks marine research lab in Seward, turning it into an animal research center that would attract scientists and tourists.
But after the March 1989 oil spill, and the ensuing legal settlements, Seward remolded its vision to combine research, animal rehabilitation and education.
The idea took hold with then-Gov. Wally Hickel, who once worked in Seward, and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council, which oversees money from the oil spill settlement.
One of those early visionaries, former city manager Darryl Schaefermeyer, is now the center's project administrator. Sitting in his new second-floor office, Schaefermeyer said the facility literally is a dream come true.
''This building is everything I dreamed or imagined it would be,'' he said.
''This is one of those things you probably have one opportunity in a lifetime to see happen and be a part of.''
The 115,000-square-foot building cost $56 million to build, with $35 million coming from the oil spill trustees, and the rest from city bonds and private fund raising.
After eight years of planning and construction, the result is a huge, concrete-and-aluminum building with two stories of public displays and lots of windows. Huge windows wrap around three animal habitats, which are molded from concrete and painted to resemble marine rookeries and sea lion haul-outs in Kenai Fjords. Windows open up to stunning views of Resurrection Bay. Other windows look out over holding pools -- even into a lab where researchers soon will be studying pink salmon.
Already, the Exxon Valdez oil spill trustee council has agreed to fund five research projects based at the SeaLife Center and the EPA has set up a sixth.
In addition, a $1 million federal program to study the beleaguered Gulf of Alaska Steller sea lion population may bring more researchers to the center, which has room for about 12.
Before long, researchers will be watching how harbor seals react to certain foods, how river otters respond to oil-tainted foods and how genetic codes affect pink salmon survival.
While they work, scientists also will be on display.
''We're basically a research facility that's open to the public for viewing,'' said Kim Sundberg, the center's executive director. Sundberg is a former state fisheries habitat biologist who guided the facility's design. ''There isn't anything like this in Alaska,'' he said. ''There isn't anything like this in the Western Hemisphere.''
The center's senior marine mammal scientist, Don Calkins, said he doesn't see a problem with visitors and waves of schoolchildren pressed to the glass while scientists work. Researchers will retain some privacy. Offices, most labs and the utilitarian holding pools will be off limits to the general public.
Early in the planning stages, proponents knew they had to create a self-sustaining facility or state leaders would shoot down the idea. The exhibits, the windows into labs and the gift shop were born from that notion.
The facility will rely almost completely on sales receipts. And it takes a lot of money to power what will be the Western Hemisphere's first cold-water marine lab. Salaries, computers, tanks, pumps, water filters and all the other equipment involved in keeping exotic animals healthy means a lot of overhead, its managers say.
The first-year budget of $6.25 million -- which also helps subsidize the costs of visiting researchers -- is based on 275,000 visitors showing up, Sundberg said.
Will visitors come?
Will people pay $12.50 to stand before wide windows built below the water line to watch marine mammals glide by?
Early indications suggest they will, according to hotel owners and tour company operators -- people who put their money on the line.
Hotel owner Paul Carter predicts the SeaLife Center will add a lucrative twist to Seward's already-robust summer tourist season.
''We're looking to the SeaLife Center having a tremendous impact,'' Carter said.
Carter, who owns Denali River Cabins just outside Denali National Park, recently purchased several downtown lots about a block from the SeaLife Center. There he plans to build the three-story Hotel Edgewater, which when it opens next April will become Seward's largest hotel and feature a central atrium, a fountain and rock-lined fireplace. It will add 75 rooms to the 590 hotel, motel or bed-and-breakfast rooms for rent between Seward and Moose Pass.
Market research on the hotel began before the SeaLife Center was a reality, Carter said, but a huge visitor magnet next door won't hurt business.
For the last decade, he noted, summer visitors have fueled robust retail sales in what Carter predicts will become Alaska's second most-popular destination, behind Denali National Park.
Seward has a 3 percent sales tax, and revenues from it have doubled since 1988, when tourism sharply increased. About two-thirds of the city's $61.7 million in taxable sales last year occurred in the summer months, according to Kenai Peninsula Borough figures.
The SeaLife Center, a nonprofit corporation, won't add directly to the taxable sales figures, but the same downtown merchants who worry about parking also anticipate spillover spending.
But how much?
Martin, the city's development director, cautions against assuming 275,000 visitors to the SeaLife Center will be a new crowd, distinct from the visitors who normally flock to Seward each summer.
Rather, he said, the SeaLife Center may create a shift in behavior.
Some of the more than 200,000 cruise ship passengers who once jumped on a bus to Anchorage may spend a night in Seward, said Tom Tougas, president of Kenai Fjords Tours.
Between the growing number of wildlife-viewing tour boats that ply Kenai Fjords National Park, hikes to Exit Glacier, summer sled-dog rides and the new marine research center, visitors have more than enough to fill a day, he said.
''So clearly it's having a positive impact,'' Tougas said. ''It isn't going to triple the business in one day. I look at it as adding an incremental 10 percent to the visitor expenditures in Seward, and I think I'm being conservative.''
Tougas is a member of the SeaLife Center's board of governors and acknowledged he's a big booster. His company has bought tickets and offers them free to people who take the wildlife boat tours, and he said Seward's other boat tours have followed suit.
Last summer, Kenai Fjords Tours ferried 150,000 people at $70 apiece on tours out to view rookeries, glaciers and whales, Tougas said.
''So to sell 300,000 people on a $12 product ... I don't see it as
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