RICHLAND — Tri-Citians will have a chance to hear about the progress of the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center and to comment on its development at a public meeting Thursday in Richland.
The meeting is a required part of the process for the project's application for a permit under the National Environmental Policy Act and will include presentations by the Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla District, Richland Public Facilities District, project architects and city officials.
The Corps is the federal agency in charge of evaluating the permit and taking public comment, said spokesman Bruce Henrickson.
Staff from the Corps' Walla Walla District office will talk about the permit purpose and the process for evaluating whether the interpretive center can be built at the new proposed location in the west end of Columbia Park.
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Project officials previously had planned to build at Columbia Point south, at the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers, but objections by area tribes coupled with strings attached to federal money triggered an intensive review process that officials ultimately decided they couldn't overcome.
Chief among the problems with Columbia Point south was the land's history as a gathering place for the tribes. The land was deemed to have a historical "feel" that would be threatened if the center was built there.
So officials spent several months scouring Richland for an alternative site before deciding to attempt to get permission to build at Columbia Park west, near Bateman Island.
The center has to be built in Richland because it uses money from the Richland Public Facilities District, although officials have said it will be a draw for the entire region.
The center is intended to serve as a gateway to the Hanford Reach National Monument and to tell the story of the region's geology, flora, fauna and history.
The planned budget for the 61,000-square-foot museum is $40.5 million. Project CEO Kimberly Camp said changes to the building design to accommodate the new site are not expected to add any costs despite having to go through a second round of surveys and permits.
About $26 million has been secured for the project, primarily from local, state and federal government sources and corporate donations. Less than $1 million has been raised from the community, Camp said.
Fundraising is moving slowly until the Columbia Park west site is approved by the Corps, she added.
Lt. Col. David Caldwell, commander and district engineer for the Corps' Walla Walla District, said the Corps is soliciting feedback from the tribes and making an effort to ensure everyone with an interest in the park agrees with locating the museum there.
"We have to go through the process that has been proven to work," Caldwell told the Herald's editorial board in a recent meeting. "When the process has been skipped or an end run made around it, it hasn't worked out so well. The first site didn't go through that same process."
Camp said everyone was aware of the cultural issues surrounding the Columbia Point south site five or six years ago, but it was when the project received money from the Federal Highway Administration that everything changed and the more intensive review was triggered.
"If not for that, we would have had an opportunity to have a discussion (about the site)," she said.
The same review process that drove the project away from Columbia Point could be triggered in the park if an archaeological survey turns up any artifacts, but that seems less likely because the ground already has been disturbed, she said.
"So far, Columbia Park west is looking pretty good," Camp said.
The Corps gets the final decision, but that could still be several months away.
"Hopefully we won't find something that stops the process," Caldwell said.