More than a decade ago, a group of Tri-Citians looked at the ruggedly beautiful environment of the newly designated Hanford Reach National Monument and saw an opportunity to tell the story of the Tri-Cities to the world.
They envisioned a Hanford Reach Interpretive Center that could be the jewel of the region, a world-class building that would draw visitors from throughout the Northwest -- and perhaps beyond.
"It had to be big enough to have a steady number of people coming in -- big enough to attract attention regionwide," said Burton Vaughan, an original board member for the interpretive center project. "We wanted to draw people from Seattle or Boise."
Numerous groups came together and shared their enthusiasm. They hired an architect, project manager and exhibit designers. They raised $25 million toward the estimated $40 million center.
Ten years later, $13.8 million has been spent and a museum has yet to be built.
Documents obtained by the Herald through the state public records act show $5 million was spent on architectural fees, $1.7 million for exhibit design and $725,000 for a project management contract until employees started being hired in late 2007. Since then, Reach center employees have been paid $1.5 million.
Another $2.1 million was spent in the early years on fundraising.
The bulk of the money -- about $10.5 million -- was spent on the first choice for the project at Columbia Point south. The rest has been spent since the project had to move to Columbia Park west.
As the project hit obstacles and fundraising stalled, a deep recession hit.
Now some people are looking back and saying in retrospect that the vision was too grand and too expensive, and questioning what should happen next.
Vision too grand?
Richland City Councilman Phillip Lemley, who has publicly questioned the project's viability, said he's concerned the city will end up subsidizing the interpretive center with general fund money if the center can't support itself once it opens.
"I have never been against the project," Lemley told the Herald. "I have been for the project being built responsibly. ... When I first got involved in this three years ago, it was represented as fully supporting itself 100 percent. For whatever reason that was not true. I'm not pointing fingers in any direction, but the reality was and is that projects like that do not support themselves."
And he's not alone in those concerns.
Lisa Toomey, the center's new executive director, took the reins of the interpretive center project 10 weeks ago from former CEO Kimberly Camp. In that time, Toomey's attended more than 80 meetings with Tri-Citians talking about how the project should move forward.
She told the Herald she's heard a lot of frustrations -- desires to see progress, to see costs cut, to repair relationships damaged by years of delays, to be more efficient and improve transparency.
"They talked about building now and showing direct results -- delivering something tangible to improve confidence," Toomey said.
The board now intends to cut in half the scope of the initial building to a 26,000-square-foot museum. They can add on later if more money is raised.
The total estimate for the project now stands at $20.5 million, with $10.5 million needed to be raised.
That includes $12 million to redesign and construct the building. In addition, $3 million is needed for utility and site work that could begin in May or June; $2.5 million for the exhibits; and $1.6 million to fund operations for two years until the museum is up and running.
The estimate also calls for a $500,000 cushion required by the sublease with Richland and a $1 million endowment goal.
Plans change, project stalls
Herald coverage from the project's early years shows that then-supporters changed their vision a few times, first from a smaller center focused on the Hanford Reach, then circa 2004 to a larger 80,000-square-foot campus that would include exhibit space, a great hall, interactive galleries, office space, classrooms, gift shop, cafe and 220-seat auditorium.
President Clinton created the Reach monument in 2000 to protect 196,000 acres of undeveloped land surrounding the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Consultants at the time said the center would need traveling and rotating exhibits to keep things fresh, and it couldn't just be about the Hanford Reach, but needed to incorporate other aspects of the region's history, science, flora, fauna and geology.
"The problem is they wanted to build a world-class facility, and now is probably not the time, and Richland is not the place to build a world-class facility," Lemley said. "That was the vision before. I think they were building a legacy. ... But that's not what we need and not what will work."
Sometime in 2006, the plan for office space was dropped and the Richland Public Facilities District -- the public agency now responsible for developing the center -- proceeded with plans for a 61,000-square-foot building on 50 acres at the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers.
The Columbia Point south plan fell apart in 2009 when it became clear project supporters wouldn't be able to overcome rigorous federal permitting requirements because the land is considered sacred to Native American tribes in the region.
The district lost not only time but money as it went through the process of picking another site.
Of the $7.6 million construction budget for Columbia Point, $1.1 million was spent on installing utility conduits to prepare for construction, said Melody Meilleur, the project's finance manager who has worked on the project since 2003 when it was managed by Riverside Consulting.
The district spent an additional $238,000 on site improvements at Columbia Point south, documents show.
The district also has paid about $5 million to architectural firm Jones & Jones of Seattle for the building designs, construction blueprints, and for help selecting a new site, Meilleur said.
The numbers provided to the Herald shows Jones & Jones was paid about $3.6 million for work at Columbia Point south and $1.4 million so far for work at Columbia Park west.
The firm has had to reconfigure the building more than once as the facilities district's plans changed.
Vaughan said Jones & Jones was less expensive than some other Northwest architects who made a pitch for the job in 2003.
Meilleur said the Seattle firm also had experience designing museums that none of the other bidders had. Most notably, Jones & Jones worked on the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
The district board is considering whether to continue using Jones & Jones to design the smaller building.
Architect Johnpaul Jones gave a $12 million estimate Wednesday that includes $7.8 million for construction at $300 per square foot, $1 million for utilities and site work, $3 million for revisions to the design, permitting and construction management, and $250,000 for furniture and fixtures.
Jones & Jones' would receive $270,000 to re-engineer the drawings, $145,000 to revise the architectural and landscape drawings, and $735,000 for construction observation.
Rick Jansons, vice president of the district's board, questions the size of the estimate citing his experience overseeing school construction as president of the Richland School Board. The board agreed to have the estimate independently evaluated.
Another major expense has been the cost of designing the exhibits in hopes of attracting an estimated 25,000 visitors each year.
The district paid an experienced Ohio company, Hilferty, $1.7 million to design the exhibits, and has budgeted about $2.5 million to have them constructed, Meilleur said.
She said the designs are finished and the exhibits are ready to be built once the district moves closer to having a building.
Other costs during the years include $213,000 for cultural/archeological surveys and water rights applications at both sites; $125,000 for estimating, permitting, inspections and licenses; and $156,300 for other expenses.
Before Camp was hired in 2007, the district had no employees and contracted with Riverside Consulting to oversee the project.
Meilleur said the $2.1 million spent on operations in the four years of full operations before Camp was hired mostly was spent on fundraising activities such as grant writing, lobbying trips and receptions for donors.
Vaughan said fundraising was a monumental challenge for the project.
"The probability of fundraising for something of this magnitude is very extensive," he said. "It's not just going out and selling $100 bricks. It's identifying groups capable of giving large gifts, setting up and hosting events where we can meet and talk with those people. That (fell) largely on former CEO Kimberly Camp."
After Camp was hired, the district spent $2.3 million for operations in the next four years as it added employees. By last year, the district employed seven people including the CEO.
The district's adopted budget for this year calls for $990,000 in operating costs -- including $125,000 in severance payments to Camp, who left the district at the end of last year.
Earlier this week the board gave preliminary approval to cut expenses by 30 percent -- or $290,000, bringing the year's operating budget to $700,000.
Toomey said the goal of a scaled-back building is to get it opened sooner. She believes as community members see tangible results, they will be more likely want to back the project.
Lemley said he was heartened by Toomey's comments as he believes it'll take buy-in from the entire community to make the interpretive center successful.
"I think they've got the right person in there now," he said. "(B)ut it is a difficult project at a difficult time. It's been around too long and it's been struggling too long. I think people are tired of hearing about it and nothing happening. Every time you hear something else it's not good news."
Despite his concerns, Lemley retains some optimism, largely because of Toomey and the current crop of board members.
"There's still money here," he said. "There's money in this community that can be generated to back this, but we need some good news to be able to back this. The board is trying. I think they have a great board of directors now. ... They have a workable vision."