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A stone archway stands amid the ruins of Waterton Lakes National Park's visitor center, which burned on Sept. 11, 2017 during the Kenow fire's assault on Waterton Village. The Prince of Wales Hotel on the hill just across the road survived unscathed. Waterton's new visitor center construction started in 2019 and should be finished by 2021.

Two years after it burned down in the Kenow fire, Waterton Lakes National Park’s visitor center has begun reconstruction.

The new center was actually OK’d in 2015, before the 49,000-acre wildfire nearly scorched Waterton townsite itself in September 2017.

Parks Canada’s visitor center at the north end of the townsite burned to the foundations while the landmark Prince of Wales Hotel a few hundred yards away survived untouched. The old center site has been cleared and turned into a trailhead for the popular Bear’s Hump trail, while a temporary visitor service center has been installed on Fountain Avenue at the north end of the village.

“This new visitor center will be much more substantive,” Parks Canada project leader Jim Lambe said on Wednesday. “It should be complete by 2021. We’re allowing the contractor to work seven days a week because we have such a short construction season. We hope to have major components closed in before winter arrives.”

The $17.3 million ($12.8 million US) project will feature a main visitor interpretative center with a 120-seat theater, along with a separate administrative building and public washroom. The new facility will take over a former children’s playground near the center of town, about 150 yards from Waterton Lake’s west shore and 300 yards from the public campground at the south end of the village.

The public portion will have displays illustrating the ecology of the park as well as the cultural legacy of the Blackfoot Confederacy of First Nations people. It will also be open year-round.

“Over the past few years, we’ve started to see a steady increase of visitors coming to Waterton in the winter,” Lambe said. “This will be an investment anchor for keeping accommodations and restaurants open longer than the typical (summer) season.”

Waterton Lake straddles the international border between Alberta and Montana, and the Canadian park has a close relationship with next-door Glacier National Park. The Kenow fire burned over both of Waterton’s major interior roads and much of its backcountry core. Details of the facilities available for visiting this summer should be released next week.