It's designed to celebrate the region's land, history and people and tell its stories -- from the ancient flood waters that shaped its topography to the secret nuclear project that altered its destiny.
And after a long and sometimes rocky path to completion, the Reach center is set to debut next week in Richland. The facility is opening with a flurry of events from ribbon cutting and dedication ceremonies to a concert, performances of The Sound of Music and activities for kids. Opening day for visitors is July 4.
"It's an exciting time. It's taken us so long to get here, but we're here," said Ron Lerch, a member of the Reach Foundation board. He also was involved with the CREHST museum in Richland, which has been integrated into the Reach.
Fred Raab, president of the Richland Public Facilities District board, which developed the Reach center, said the new facility will be a vital part of the educational and cultural scene of the Tri-Cities.
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"A lot of people have formed a lot of opinions about what the Reach is and what it's going to do. I think people kind of have to reset their images by coming to visit and finding out what it really is," Raab said.
"I think they'll be impressed."
From the Ice Age floods to Hanford
The Reach center at the west end of Columbia Park has an array of indoor and outdoor offerings.
Its 14,000-square-foot main level includes two galleries. Gallery 1 holds an exhibit on the Hanford Reach and surrounding region through time, while Gallery 2 features an exhibit telling of the Hanford nuclear site's role in the Manhattan Project and World War II.
Other indoor features range from an exhibit highlighting the region's agricultural heritage to a digital globe and displays on topics such as hydropower.
An aquarium with Columbia River fish greets visitors near the entrance.
Even the center's floor is a teaching tool, with stained concrete depicting Ice Age flood waters.
The Reach's entry hall looks out on the river, and the facility also has a multipurpose room, offices, store and a 10,000-square-foot unfinished basement.
The Reach grounds include an outdoor theater and another outdoor stage, a section of a center pivot used in agriculture and other features from vegetable, plant and herb gardens to gnarly vines illustrating the roots of the region's wine industry.
Metal silhouettes of Hanford Reach wildlife line a trail winding from Columbia Park Trail up to the new center.
Officials for years called the future facility the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center. But it has developed into a hybrid interpretive center, museum, science center and performing arts venue and now goes by the Reach.
Pasco architect Terence Thornhill designed the facility and DGR Grant Construction in Richland was the builder. The price tag is about $12 million for the building, infrastructure and exhibits.
The money has come from a mix of sources, ranging from federal and state money to private foundations and individual and corporate donors.
The budget for the first year of operations for now is set at $717,000, although officials said they will be reviewing it often and making adjustments as needed. Raab said Reach officials haven't just been building a building, but also a business. "We think we have a sustainable plan," he said.
Path to completion
The effort to build the center has spanned more than a decade, starting not long after President Clinton established the 196,000-acre Hanford Reach National Monument in 2000.
At one point, the vision looked much different, with plans for a larger facility in a different spot -- Columbia Point south.
But problems with that site arose. Native American tribes in the region objected because of the cultural and spiritual significance of the grounds, and rigorous federal permitting requirements loomed. Fundraising also slowed as the recession set in.
Public confidence in the project dipped, but momentum has grown in recent years with the shift to the new site at Columbia Park west, a scaled-back plan and new leadership on the public facilities district board and staff.
Lisa Toomey, current Reach CEO, joined the project in early 2012.
She said it's humbling and exciting to be on the verge of opening. Its debut will mean delivery on a promise years in the making, she said.
And more is in store. A master plan envisions four additions, each 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, to be built as funding comes together.
"We'll continue to expand exhibits and storytelling with or without more space," Toomey said.
Key priorities after opening will be to finish the basement to use as storage, curation and display space and to expand Gallery 1 to tell a more complete story of the Hanford site, she said.
The space about to open "is a great place to start. Already we have a lot of ideas about new stories. Once we open our doors, we'll be thinking about what's next," Toomey said.
"I really think this is just the beginning, and there's so much more to come."
Leaders envision the Reach as a community hub -- a bustling, vibrant resource and attraction.
It will be a place for theater and concerts. For hands-on educational activities. A starting point for exploration of the Reach monument and region.
A place that encourages learning for all ages through initiatives and programs, and also one that inspires creativity and imagination.
"We want everyone in the Tri-Cities and the surrounding region to really feel like this is their place," said Stephanie Button, the Reach's education and program coordinator.
Right now, "we're kind of the best kept secret," she told the Herald. "But we're about to get very loud. That's what we want to be -- we want to be loud and exciting and fun. We want people to say, 'You should go to the Reach.'"
Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau, said the Reach has much to offer residents. She has been through the new center, and "when the public sees it, they'll feel a great sense of pride in the Tri-City region. This is our building, it belongs to our community and it tells the great stories of our region."
Watkins, who's part of the Reach Foundation board, said the center also will be a strong addition to the region's tourism portfolio, helping to draw conventions and events to the community. It should be on every visitor's itinerary, she said.
The Reach has about 10 full- and part-time employees and numerous volunteers.
Dave Rose, mayor of Richland, said the opening has been a long time coming and he feels the Reach center will bring regional and national recognition to the city and the Tri-Cities.
Inside the Reach on a recent afternoon, Toomey sat near a large window overlooking the Columbia River.
The aquarium was stocked. Displays and exhibits were installed. Workers buzzed about, putting on finishing touches.
Toomey said she sees the Reach, with its long journey to fruition, as a reflection of the resiliency of the community -- a community that has been touched by everything from flood waters to a world war.
The Reach project has faced challenges, but, "We found a way. We found a way," she said.
"And it's beautiful."
w Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald