RICHLAND — A handful of people raised questions at a public meeting Thursday night about whether enough people will visit the planned Hanford Reach Interpretive Center once it's built to justify the $40.5 million price tag.
But people involved with the project defended the value the museum will bring to the Mid-Columbia once it's built, saying it will have a "wow factor" that will draw crowds from throughout the region.
About 70 people attended the meeting at the Richland Community Center, which was part of the process of getting a permit for the project from the Army Corps of Engineers under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The three-hour format included presentations by the Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District, Richland Public Facilities District, project architects and city officials, followed by an hour-long public comment period.
Mart Young, a docent at the Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology, balked at estimates that the museum will see 65,000 visitors each year, including 20,000 elementary, middle and high-school students.
Young said with school district budgets being cut, he thought field trips and their associated transportation costs probably would be on the chopping block.
"I guess I'm dubious it can really happen, that we can get that kind of attendance," he said.
Kimberly Camp, interpretive center CEO, said the numbers were conservative estimates based on several studies, including ones that looked specifically at community interest in the project and the potential for tourism.
The project planners also will solicit community support to help school districts pay the costs to bus students to the museum, she said.
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. 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 from local, state and federal government sources and corporate donations. Less than $1 million has been raised from the community.
Young and a couple of other people in the audience asked whether a smaller building might be better.
"Is it time to look and see what we can build for $26 million instead of $40.5 million?" Young said.
Retired Kennewick physician Rod Coler said he thought the building as planned might not be big enough in years to come because of the community excitement it will generate.
"I'd like to make an argument for spending the whole $40.5 million," Coler said. "We're soon going to run out of space. We're soon going to want more exhibits."
Attendees also asked whether native tribes in the region might try to delay the project.
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, so they now are attempting to get permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to build in the west end of Columbia Park.
Representatives from the Corps said they're talking with the tribes, but that they must go through the federally mandated process to avoid the possibility of litigation -- which could delay the project for years.
The Corps now will accept comments on the project for 30 days before drafting an environmental assessment. Visit nww.usace.army.mil. To submit a comment, email CENWW-RE@usace.army.mil.
* Michelle Dupler: 509-582-1543; email@example.com