San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex Manager Kim Forrest said she expects the number of visitors per year to the San Luis refuge on Wolfsen Road to double once the new visitor's center being designed for the refuge opens in 2011.
Given the refuge's proximity to major population centers in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the Valley, the 150,000 people she believes will stop by the visitor's center each year could be a conservative estimate.
City officials are hoping the expected increase in tourism construction of the 16,000-square-foot center and headquarters building at the refuge will bring will also be a boon for business in Los Baños.
"I'm thrilled they got the stimulus money to go forward with it," said Los Baños City Manager Steve Rath. "Kim [Forrest] has recognized the importance of it during her career here. It's a huge advantage for the community and the surrounding area."
Statistics published in a 2007 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Economics indicate each visitor to the refuge will spend and average of $62 locally and will generate about $11 in tax revenue.
"There are a lot of advantages for business," Rath said. "Public interest is going to grow over time and I hope people will come to visit the refuge, stay overnight in Los Baños, eat at our restaurants and shop at our stores."
The project at the 27,000-acre San Luis refuge is more than halfway through the design phase and is expected to go out to bid sometime in February. A bid award is expected by the end of March, Forrest said, with groundbreaking for construction sometime in May.
The visitor's center portion of the building includes a 1,500-square-foot exhibit hall and a 1,000-square-foot multipurpose room.
A footbridge across an ox bow wetland leading visitors into the center ends at a life-size statue of a tule elk just in front of the main entrance. A large window at the back of the center's lobby looks out between two riparian corridors onto the refuge's tule elk enclosure, offering visitors unhindered views of the animals in their natural setting.
Exhibits inside the center will include examples of the habitat on the refuge including wetlands, uplands, woodlands, vernal pools and water courses, and information about the flora and fauna that can be found at the San Luis Complex.
"A lot of people in Los Baños don't realize the value of what's out there, basically on two sides of the city," Rath said. "People are becoming more ecologically aware of the importance of preserving the wetland area, and promoting it is to our advantage."
Los Baños Chamber of Commerce member Rhonda Lowe said she's hoping the organization's tourism committee can revive the annual Wild on Wetlands celebration. Prior to its hiatus two years ago, the celebration honored what local wetlands provided to the community.
Lowe hopes when the visitor's center opens next year the celebration will help reconnect Los Baños to another unique element of the community.
"The wetlands are huge. They are world famous and part of this community," Lowe said. "We need to take ownership on how important it is. We need to celebrate and honor that area."
Lowe said in the future she's hoping the tourism committee will continue highlighting the wetlands and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge visitor's center to attract Los Baños visitors to a local venue that is as important as any other historical monument, building or figure in the community.
"It's great habitat and a learning experience," Rath said of the nearby refuge. "Where else can you go in Central California and see tule elk? There are a lot of neat things for kids to do out there."
In addition to the visitor's center, the refuge project includes a headquarters section which has room for the agency's full- and part-time staff.
According to an e-mail from Matthew Ackerman of the project's design firm Catalyst Architecture, LLC, "The building is currently being engineered as a 'less-than-zero' energy design (meaning that it will contribute more energy than it consumes), and is on track to achieve a LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Platinum rating from the US Green Building Council - the highest LEED rating available."
Besides a reduced PG&E bill, another significant saving for the Fish and Wildlife Service will come as the agency no longer has to pay $200,000 per year to rent the headquarters building it currently occupies in a Los Baños shopping center.
It was announced in April the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which encompasses 45,000 acres plus 90,000 acres of conservation easements, would be receiving a $9.8 million grant to enable the Los Baños-area network of refuges to build the long-deferred project. The grant also makes the San Luis refuge complex the nation's largest single recipient of new Fish and Wildlife Service economic recovery funds.
The San Luis refuge complex funding is part of $280 million in Fish and Wildlife Service grants being spread nationwide. Other Central Valley refuges are getting a share, though the San Luis refuge is receiving more than any of the other 770 projects funded from coast to coast.
Los Baños Enterprise reporter Samantha Salas contributed to this article.