National Trout Center Board of Directors President George Spangler, far right, points out the stratification of the rock facing along the Root River to several members of the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee on Oct. 8. The stop on their bus tour informed the committee of the NTC as a potential candidate for bonding dollars in 2014.  ANTON ADAMEK/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
National Trout Center Board of Directors President George Spangler, far right, points out the stratification of the rock facing along the Root River to several members of the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee on Oct. 8. The stop on their bus tour informed the committee of the NTC as a potential candidate for bonding dollars in 2014. ANTON ADAMEK/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
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As part of their bus tour to southeast Minnesota, 25 members of the Minnesota House of Representatives' Capital Investment Committee were introduced to both the current home and proposed site for the National Trout Center (NTC) in Preston.

The committee listened to members of the NTC's Board of Directors and City of Preston Economic Development Authority (EDA) explain details about the trout environmental learning center. Much of the information given to the legislators had already been submitted to them during a March hearing for a 2013 bonding bill. They had made the trip to obtain a firsthand experience of what many are hoping will be a keeper for Preston, southeast Minnesota, and the driftless area.

The NTC will be entering its fifth year in 2014. Originally set up by the Preston EDA in 2009, its future has been and will continue to undergo scrutiny as the city and EDA determine how to financially back it. Day-to-day operations and programming received a boost beginning in 2013 when a full-time director of operations and programming was hired. It was understood at the time that half of the time would be spent locating and expanding funding streams for the NTC.

According to Board of Directors President George Spangler, the Preston City Council was aware that the results of the fundraising wouldn't be seen until halfway through the year. By the time the summer season arrived, it was apparent the NTC would be dealing with a shortfall for 2013 if nothing was done to cut expenses. Increasing revenue wasn't going as expected.

In August, the council decided to eliminate the director of operations and programming position, which sent the NTC back to relying solely upon volunteers. Since that time, no additional revenue sources have been tapped and the NTC is only running normally scheduled educational programs.

Going forward, Spangler said most of the center's tentative 2014 budget will be spent on finding that revenue and building a stronger financial footing for the NTC.

One concern facing the NTC right now is not knowing how much longer the city and EDA will be willing to back it if fundraising remains an issue. Upon its inception in 2009, the NTC had been given a five-year window of opportunity to develop revenue streams and progress toward establishing a permanent home. Though the first five years are almost up, Spangler pointed out that successful learning centers in the areas take longer to become well established. He referenced Wabasha's National Eagle Center, which the NTC modeled their business plan after and which took roughly a decade to obtain a permanent home.

Spangler noted the NTC having proven two things in its first four years. First, there is general interest in information and services relating to trout and, second, that the visitor base is drawn mostly from outside of the local population. In fact, 76 percent of all visitors to the NTC have been from outside Fillmore County.

Spangler and the Board of Directors welcomed this statistic, because the overall goal of the NTC is to become a center of information for any place in the nation where trout reside. Balancing the development of their programming and information base with their financial capacity will continue to be an issue going forward.

"I'm not surprised that we are going through this," admitted Spangler, while also noting the positive nature of the legislators' visit.

Legislative representatives have been hearing more and more about the NTC the past couple years ever since a presentation was made at a hearing for the 2012 bonding bill. Rep. Greg Davids and Sen. Jeremy Miller have pushed for bonding moneys in both branches of government.

Preston EDA Director Cathy Enerson reported that legislators have become more educated and aware of the trout fishing impacts to southeastern Minnesota. That regional impact may be a driving force in next year's bonding session.

If the NTC does receive funding, Enerson said it would most likely come in stages. The first stage would address pre-design and design work. The second stage would fund construction, furnishing and equipping a permanent home.

Enerson said the state is looking for a way to see a return on anything they invest.

A study on the economic impacts of trout fishing to the driftless area done in 2008 showed an annual economic benefit of $1.1 billion to local communities.

Any assistance from the state would be a major relief to the Preston community, which would be unable to completely support any NTC construction project based solely on taxpayers' dollars.

Preston Mayor Kurt Reicks and city council member Robert Maust both stressed the importance of finding financial support from outside the city, which would include legislative bonding.

The benefits of having the NTC in Preston cannot be foreseen exactly, but Spangler said having it in the city would eventually make Preston a place of attraction. He encouraged local community members to stop in at the NTC and be individually engaged in what is going on there. He said some people don't have interests in trout, but may have a business that could stand to benefit if more people start coming to the area because of the NTC.

The future of the NTC will rest in the hands of the city council and the EDA.

Mayor Reicks said, "We have a working relationship. I look at it as a positive thing."

The NTC may be a positive idea, but having it progress to become a permanent interpretive center will be impacted by the continued patience of the local government and the financial backing of residents, groups and state government.