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Fortress gets 5-year lease extension from city

SITKA, ALASKA
The agreement struck with the city adds 11,000 square feet to the property, and includes two buildings. Not far from one of them stands Fortress of the Bear’s executive director, Les Kinnear.

“The roof leaks like a sieve and it was designed for a specific purpose, and there’s really nothing else you can do with it,” Kinnear said. “We’d like to demo it and get it off the footprint. The other building has some value. It’s the large blue tin building on the other end of the property. If we’re going to maintain the farm on site, we need to have a place where we can secure the animals and protect them from the weather.”

The farm is a collection of assorted animals – including a small horse, some sheep, the roosters you heard a moment ago, pigs, chickens, and some goats. Right now it’s located between the two clarifier tanks that have been converted into habitat for the Fortress’s main attraction: five bears.

“Eventually, we hope to consolidate our bear management structures here,” Kinnear said. “We hope to have a veterinary clinic, indoor secure areas to work with the bears, food preparation areas, cold storage, dry, frozen. So the farm will eventually move over.”

Those plans also call for an auditorium, gift shop and food stand. But that’s a ways down the road. In 2010, the Fortress had a net income of $17,000 – an improvement from last year, when it was more than $2,000 in the red. The organization’s business plan hopes to boost those revenues. It’s counting on a shuttle bus running three times a day when cruise ships are in port, $10 entrance fees, a gift shop that nets $300 per cruise ship day, not to mention grants and loans, plus memberships.

Initially housing two bears – Chaik and Killisnoo – the Fortress is now home to three more, who live in the neighboring habitat: sibling cubs named Lucky, Balloo and Toby.

The Sawmill Cove Industrial Park board urged Kinnear to work toward purchasing the property from the city. Kinnear says he's not sure when that could happen.

“I’m not sure how much difference it makes to the city – whether it’s purchased up front or on the back end – but I’m sure the city will realize substantial gain from this project in any event,” he said.

The agreement before the Assembly on Tuesday night was originally for a three-year lease extension. Upping the deal to five years worried Assembly member Phyllis Hackett.

She said she was initially a skeptic of the Fortress, but has since been out there a few times and thinks the Kinnear are doing a good job. But, she said, what if the city needs the planned location of the farm to stage materials for the nearby Blue Lake hydro project.

Sitka utility director Chris Brewton said at the moment it's not an issue, but he wasn't sure if the space would be needed in a few years, once work on raising the Blue Lake dam is in full swing.

“Most of our area we’re trying to look to be on the water side of the street, closest to the dock, but as we get into the engineering design and how we’re going to stage this and phase the project we’ll have a better idea, but at this time I haven’t seen any issues where we’re going to be in that general area,” Brewton said.

Speaking to the Assembly, Les Kinnear said operating the Fortress hasn’t been easy, but that he’s hopeful for the future.

“Given the chance, we’ll continue to push this Cadillac up the hill,” Kinnear said. “When we get to the top, everybody’s going to want to get on and go down the other side.”

Hackett voted no to make the lease a five-year deal, but joined the rest of the Assembly in lending support to the final agreement. Mim McConnell recused herself from voting, because Fortress of the Bear is a client of her publishing business.
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