BOARDMAN --The sprawling facility touted as a first for the Northwest pops up from the brush along Interstate 84 like an oasis.
And a towering sign set up along the highway not far from the 23,000-square-foot building makes an enticing promise:
The Sustainable Agriculture and Energy (SAGE) Center in Boardman is scheduled to open June 1. The interactive visitor facility, under construction for about 11/2 years, will highlight the vast industries within the Port of Morrow and surrounding region, as well as the technologies they use for everything from ethanol production to potato processing.
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It will include 10,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 3,000-square-foot mezzanine with seating for up to 150 people, and a 204-seat theater with a projector capable of showing 3D films.
The Portland firm Formations is designing and building the exhibits. Highlights will include an interactive tractor feature where visitors can try their hand at planting virtual corn, a kinetic sculpture showing how a potato goes from the field to twister fries, and a simulated hot-air balloon tour of Morrow County.
"You'll walk up and around and into a basket that is capable of holding up to 12 people," said Kalie Davis, SAGE Center manager. "It will go up and down 30 inches, and we'll have a 7-foot screen ... you'll be looking down and it will give you an aerial tour of (the) county."
The center, a project of the Port of Morrow, is meant to be fun as well as educational, officials said. They hope visitors will gain an appreciation for the port and county's impact on and place in the larger world.
Rural Morrow County is home to about 11,000 people. It doesn't have any stoplights, "not even a flashing yellow," said Diane Wolfe, executive director of the Boardman Chamber of Commerce. Yet, she said, the Port of Morrow is the second-largest in the state of Oregon.
"Boardman has so much to offer. ... (People) see it as this little small town. They don't understand the industry and all we have to offer," Wolfe said. "We can let the whole world know that we are agriculture, and the importance of agriculture."
Gary Neal, port general manager, added that "awareness is one of the key things we're trying to accomplish here."
"This is a great venue to help people become more aware of what does go on in this region," he told the Herald. He also said it will show students they don't necessarily have to move to a big city to find good-paying jobs in technical professions.
"The technology we have here -- it's some of the most advanced in the world," Neal said. "That's part of the message too."
The SAGE Center's themes extend to the building design. The parking area, for example, is arranged to reference circle irrigation.
Inside, stained concrete will create a water path in a nod to the Columbia River's importance to the port and county.
SAGE officials said no other nearby port has a facility like their center.
The Boardman center does have a few things in common with the long-awaited Hanford Reach Interpretive Center scheduled to open in the Tri-Cities next year. One of them is the architect.
Terence Thornhill, who has a firm in Pasco, designed the SAGE Center with the Portland-based Ross Farland. Thornhill also is designing the Hanford Reach building.
Thornhill said the SAGE and Reach buildings "are eye-catchers, intended to make a statement."
The Reach facility will have cascading roof lines symbolizing the ice age floods that shaped the Mid-Columbia, roof overhangs that evoke longhouse architecture, and an entry that echoes the stacked look of Hanford's historic B Reactor, Thornhill has said.
Both facilities aim to attract residents as well as tourists. But they have distinctly different themes, with the Reach aimed at showcasing the history and culture of Eastern Washington.
Reach and SAGE officials said they don't view their facilities as competitive.
"If anything, they're complementary," said Lisa Toomey, Reach CEO. She noted the SAGE Center will be featured in the new tour program the Reach is launching this spring.
Davis said she sees opportunities for the two centers, located about 50 minutes apart, to work together.
"We're so close, it's a great opportunity, especially for people traveling through the region to stop by the Reach, learn about the projects they have going on, (and also) come by Boardman and learn about the Port of Morrow and Morrow County and the unique industries located here," she said.
The SAGE Center's grand opening is planned June 1. The price tag for the building and exhibits totals $7 million, with about $4 million coming from Oregon state lottery funds and the rest from the port.
On a recent morning, as crews worked inside the facility, sparks flew in to the air from welders' torches and the hammering was loud enough to interrupt Davis' tour of the space.
She showed the theater, the spot where the kinetic sculpture will stand. Mark Patton, the project manager, came along. He described the facility as "a work of art."
More than one local resident said anticipation is building in the community as the facility takes shape along the busy highway.
"People ask, what's going on, what can we do?" said Kathy Neal, who's married to Gary Neal and is part of the community committee that's helped shape the center.
"From (residents) to the business -- they're very excited about having it here. It's a totally new activity for this region. It's tourism, but it's education as well," she said.
"It's a new source of pride for sure."