HOUSTON — How do you build a facility with three open air aviaries that can handle the weight of snow and keep out insects that spread West Nile virus?

Karla Bloem, director of the International Owl Center, would like to know.

The final piece of five adjoining parcels of land for a new center in Houston has come up for sale.

As with most nonprofits, the center will be looking to the public to help raise funds to purchase the land. However, Bloem is looking to the public for ideas for the design of the new center too.

The center is holding a contest offering $5,000 for designs of the facility.

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Karla Bloem and Alice pose for a photo in 2015.
Karla Bloem and Alice pose for a photo in 2015.

“We have unique challenges with what we want to do,” Bloem said. “Nothing like what we want to build exists in the United States.”

Instead of putting the design in the hands of one firm, Bloem said opening the design to anyone could give the center access to many more creative approaches.

The center should fit the community and area of Southeast Minnesota and be environmentally friendly. It would need to house the raptors while protecting them from the elements, from pests that can carry harmful diseases. It should also keep birds within it and outside it from striking the enclosure and inuring themselves.

“Our plan is basically to have a bowl of great ideas and choose the best,” Bloem said.

Designers are invited to address one of the challenges -- or all of them -- and the prize will be divided among the designers based on the level of their contribution.

People can register to contribute to the contest at the International Owl Center website www.internationalowlcenter.org. Cost is $15.

The parcels are east of the Houston Nature Center, at the head of the Root River State Trail and adjacent to the Nature Center’s natural playground — an area with buried fossils, stone tunnels and caves, a willow tunnel and other features made of natural materials.

The playground was built when Bloem was director of the nature center and as she moved on to found the International Owl Center, she knew that site would be its future home.

Conventional fundraising for the project is underway. Bloem said she has had her eyes on the five properties since before the center opened at its present location in a former storefront on East Cedar Street in Houston.

“Our goal is to own everything free and clear before we go forward,” she said.

The center was on pace to do just that before the COVID-19 outbreak hit. However, breakfast with the owls, the center’s annual midyear fundraiser, was canceled. The fifth parcel of land became available just after the center spent money to acquire one of the previous four and demolish two buildings on the site. Those costs, in addition to diminished capacity to prevent spread of COVID-19, have cut into the center’s operational account.

“There’s no question we’ll move forward,” Bloem said. “Everything falls together as it should.”