Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center Celebrates 20 Years

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sue Leskiw

Friends of the Arcata Marsh

ARCATA MARSH – When I moved to Humboldt County in 1998, I was not aware that the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center was only five years old. Since then, I have been very involved with Friends of the Arcata Marsh (FOAM) and was gratified to learn about that nonprofit organization’s role in the creation of our beloved interpretive center.

I won’t get into the multiyear “Wastewater Wars” struggle to create the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, beyond noting that it was formally dedicated on July 4, 1981. The sewage treatment system went online in 1986. In that same year, the City of Arcata competed for an Innovation in State and Local Government grant offered by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Ford Foundation. A number of other government entities – 1,346 in all – applied to receive up to $100,000 each for “enterprising programs that save money or improve public services.” Although Arcata’s proposal to build a marsh interpretive center was among the 25 finalists, it failed to make the final round of 10 winners.

The Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center. Courtesy FOAM

The Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center. Courtesy FOAM

The Foundation encouraged the city to re-apply in 1987, and the second time proved to be the charm. Arcata was selected from 1,018 applications to receive $100,000, along with much larger cities Duluth, St. Louis, New York City, Raleigh, Dallas, and Fort Worth, plus statewide programs in Georgia, Illinois, and Kansas. According to City Manager Rory Robinson, the reason Arcata didn’t come out in the top 10 the previous year was that the Ford Foundation didn’t expect such a small city to apply. He was quoted in a September 18 article in the (Arcata) Union as opining “They didn’t know how to handle us. Here’s this little city out in California that’s turning sewage into flowers. It took Ford a while to realize what was going on. People had never treated sewage as a resource before.”

Arcata’s vision was to construct a $170,000 interpretive center, with the shortfall in funding to be obtained through grants and donations. “A center will be helpful because visitors from out of the area don’t know where to start in visiting the Marsh,” said Public Works Director Frank Klopp. Construction was optimistically pegged to begin in summer, 1988.

The newly created Arcata Foundation was to be used to raise some of the funds. According to an editorial in the September 22, 1987 (Eureka) Times-Standard, the interpretive center was intended to be a permanent home for the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center (never happened).

Following the announcement of receipt of the Ford Foundation grant, a September 23, 1987 Union editorial stated “The Arcata Marsh’s recognition by the Ford Foundation shows that small towns and small town people can do big things… Arcata has come up with a better mousetrap and the nation, if not the world, is likely to beat a path to its door… Nowhere else in the nation, perhaps, can citizens flush with as much pride as in Arcata.”

The interpretive center was to be “the focus of all of Arcata’s waterfront programs, activities, and history,” such as a Waterfront Day held in late September.

A November 30, 1988 Times-Standard article reported that the Arcata City Council approved design of an interpretive center that included an exhibit area, multipurpose room, and offices/wet lab.

Designed by Eureka architect Philippe Lapotre, the 4,100-square-foot center was to be built of wood and either cinder blocks or adobe and was expected to cost $580,000. Construction is “years away”… “It means a lot of bake sales,” stated councilperson Thea Gast.

The center would be built on piers sunk deep into the earth below fill placed when the Arcata Marsh was created. “The exhibit area will be arranged in a circle, with children’s activities in the middle. Along with static exhibits will be interactive ones, including a computer program with which people can plug in variables to answer questions about the marsh. A corner of the center will be built around a natural pond and the facility will be connected to a series of trails that run along saltwater and freshwater habitats. The center would be tied in to the rest of the marsh by constructing an observation tower within sight distance and a series of satellites (restrooms, benches, interpretive panels).”

This ambitious design ballooned the cost estimate from $170,000 to $580,000, not including the tower and satellites. The City Council also discussed reconstructing part of the original wharf between Jacoby’s Storehouse and Humboldt Bay.

In March 1990, Patrick O’Dell, publisher and owner of the Union (Humboldt Group), pledged $20,000 toward construction of the interpretive center’s Living Marsh Library, which would serve as “an extension of the inside exhibits. Native plants will be organized and landscaped around the water’s edge.” Construction was scheduled to begin by late 1991, according to a March 28 Union editorial.

Over two years later (May 20, 1992), the Arcata City Council, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, approved $22,200 in additional funding because the lowest construction bid for the center came in that much above available funds. The contract went to Mark Jones of Eureka. The  nonprofit organization FOAM had been formed to raise money to build the center, eventually garnering $55,000 from 232 individuals (whose names are listed on a plaque in the lobby).

A Times-Standard article on May 21 reminded readers that “plans for the interpretive center had once been much grander, but the city failed to receive a needed grant and the project had to be redesigned.” The state budget crisis and the resulting financial crunch in the city forced a scaled-back plan. The final building size was 1,540 square feet.

The City successfully sought a $150,000 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to construct a parking lot, pathways, and a floating boardwalk. Siding for the building was slated to come from boards salvaged during demolition of a barn at the site of new Arcata Sports Complex (never happened).

The Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center was formally dedicated on May 25, 1993, at a christening attended by 50 people. A May 27 article in the Union read, “The importance of the interpretive center cannot be underestimated. The City now has a means by which to educate marsh visitors on many aspects of the nature preserve, which is integrated with an innovative wastewater treatment plant and is home to a wide range of plants and birds. For years, visitors to the marsh have enjoyed its wildlife and trails with little guidance. Now, school children, university students, wildlife enthusiasts, hikers, and tourists will be able to fully appreciate one of Arcata’s most notable accomplishments.”

Arcata signed a two-year contract with FOAM to staff the information desk, provide escorted tours of the Marsh, and sell “Marsh-related memorabilia.” The center opened the first weekend in June, 1993, to be staffed only Saturday and Sunday afternoons by volunteers.

Sue Leskiw is President of Friends of the Arcata Marsh.