Visions of Hanford Reach Interpretive Center's interior are growing

By John Trumbo, Tri-City HeraldAugust 15, 2012 

While economic reality is forcing the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center to downsize, the vision for what will happen inside is getting bigger, said Lisa Toomey, the project's executive director.

Toomey and other representatives of the Reach project and Richland Public Facilities District board told the Tri-City Herald editorial board Tuesday that key community support is in place to start construction on a 12,000-square-foot center within 10 months.

"We have a new construction manager and will create a new facility as a nexus for telling our stories," Toomey said.

The project is expected to consist of three buildings on property west of Edison Street in Columbia Park.

Toomey said there is tremendous support for the campus approach that will include educational elements about fish and wildlife, Department of Energy's artifacts related to Hanford and an environmental teaching center. A 500-seat amphitheater also is planned, along driving tours to Hanford and a model of the solar system scaled to be a river-walk exhibit.

The new facility also will incorporate Richland's CREHST museum, as well as an indoor 50-person theater, gift shop and cafe. Administrative offices and classrooms will be placed initially in portable facilities, and there will be minimal permanent staffing, she added.

"(The building) will be something less extravagant, but more focused on the content," Toomey said.

The board had no choice but to "write-off the fancy design as a loss" for a $40.5 million, world-class center because there simply is no chance of raising the money, said Fred Raab, board president.

But that does not mean the project is in jeopardy.

Raab said the board is committed to building an interpretive center.

Time is critical, however, because decisions must be made quickly to meet a construction start deadline of next June. A promise of $500,000 from the Washington State Heritage Capital Projects Fund expires on that date if construction hasn't begun.

But the first hurdle is to work out an agreement with the city of Richland for the land in Columbia Park. Conditions of the lease must be renegotiated to reflect the smaller size. The city also wants money set aside in reserve and the city council wants to approve the project's expected operating plan, also known as a pro forma.

Toomey said those concerns should be resolved within a few weeks.

Raab said the project has no community opposition and is hampered only by money.

"This is going to be a success. It will not fail," said George Garlick, a businessman who has been in the Tri-Cities for 50 years and has become one of the project's most visible boosters.

Garlick said Toomey, as the new executive director, with the help of a supportive board and strong community endorsement, will carry the project to completion.

"There is total control now and decisions are being made right here. The Tri-Cities is a can-do community," he said.

"We're all in. Failure is not an option, but it means everyone is going to have to give a little," Toomey said.

Board member Rick Jansons said critical questions needing answers are whether there is enough information to reasonably show the project can be built with money in hand and if it can be operated "in the black."

Jansons said changes in board leadership, with Raab as new president, cuts of 70 percent in operational expenses and decisions to streamline the project have helped, but one issue remains.

"Our biggest obstacle is perception in the community," he said.

Toomey said other changes are affecting the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center project since it was launched a decade ago.

"There's been the Ice Age Floods Trail and the potential for a Manhattan Project National Park," she said.

Toomey said those stories need to be added to the growing list of educational opportunities and interpretive tours. There will be stories about the environment, settlements, how the federal Columbia Basin Project delivered irrigation water to turn the desert into fields for agriculture and the role of Hispanics in the region.

"The Columbia River binds it all together," Toomey said.

Raab said that in hindsight, there should have been more effort earlier to develop educational programs and tours, which would have shown the public the need to build a home for them.

The interpretive center will focus on education, for elementary kids and for adults.

"Giving students an experience they can't obtain in a classroom is key," Toomey said.

And creating an adult education component also is important, especially for revenue.

One possibility for adult education is to have an interpretive program patterned after the North Cascades Institute's environmental learning center at Diablo Lake, east of Sedro-Wolley.

The nonprofit organization provides learning experiences in an outdoor campus setting with experts leading seminars about the environment.

"They are willing to share their template with us," she said.

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