Firm backs off strong wording used in review of Reach center finance issues

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 7, 2013 

The firm hired to review the financial feasibility of the long-planned Hanford Reach Interpretive Center said the agency behind the project is in a better position to cover its debt than previously estimated.

And the firm, AECOM, backed off some of the stronger language used to describe the Richland Public Facilities District's ability to make debt payments.

A draft version of the review said there appears to be "a fragile balance" for covering the debt service. The phrase isn't in the final version released late last week.

AECOM took another look at the review and factored in some updated numbers, leading to the revision, company officials wrote in a letter to the state Department of Commerce. The commerce department hired the firm to conduct the review, which is required under a new state law.

Some other parts of the review are unchanged, including the conclusion that Reach officials might be overly optimistic about some revenues and counting too much on volunteer labor.

The final version says repaying the debt is heavily dependent on retail sales in Richland and Benton County. But it notes that the amount of sales tax revenue received by the district has exceeded expectations almost every year from 2004-11.

The draft version said there was a shortfall between projections and actual collections six of eight years during that time.

The public facilities district in 2004 issued bonds worth $7 million for the project, with the debt to be covered by a portion of sales tax collections in Richland and some other parts of Benton County, as well as a share of Richland's lodging tax.

Lisa Toomey, Reach chief executive officer, said project officials are pleased with the revision because it "validates what we had said all along."

The public facilities district board discussed the draft review at a meeting last week, and Toomey prepared a formal response.

Her letter listed several concerns, including the section covering debt service, and pointed out multiple numbers officials felt were wrong.

The Reach project, in the works for more than a decade, has been hampered by delays. It's been gaining momentum in the past year. Construction is set to start this summer on the center, which will include two galleries, a film viewing room, a multipurpose room and a great hall looking out on the Columbia River.

Toomey said Reach officials "certainly took into consideration everything" raised in the review.

"We're happy it's complete and are ready to move forward" with the project, she said.

Jaime Kaszynski, a research project manager for the state commerce department, said the financial feasibility reviews are intended to provide objective information about public facilities district projects for local decision-makers.

The reviews are required in the wake of the high-profile financial woes of a Wenatchee arena project.

To check out the review, go to

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529;; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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