Groundbreaking held for Hanford Reach Interpretive Center

RICHLAND -- Tribal spiritual leader Armand Minthorn had a message for the people huddled under umbrellas next to the Columbia River on Wednesday -- history surrounds us.

History is in the rocks and the trees and the water, and in the people who remember and tell the stories.

"We all have ownership in history, wherever we come from," said Minthorn, with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, as he blessed the ground where the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center will be built in the west end of Columbia Park.

"We all have a responsibility to protect that history," he said. "Today all of us are making history. This site is rich in history -- not just mine, but yours as well."

And sometime on the not too distant horizon, that history will be on display in the museum overlooking the Columbia River -- a piece of the landscape that has brought generations and cultures together to share the place now known as the Tri-Cities.

Nearly 200 people gathered in the park to celebrate the turning of the first symbolic shovels full of dirt on a project nine years in the making -- and even the first chilly autumn rain couldn't dampen the spirits of project supporters.

Richland Mayor John Fox and Joel Rogo, president of the Richland Public Facilities Board, each noted the long and winding path that led to the groundbreaking, and their hope for the project's future.

"The path forward is clear," Fox said. "Now the urgent task is to raise the remaining funds for the building."

That task became a little bit easier moments later when Frank Russo, vit plant project director for Bechtel International, handed the Richland Public Facilities District -- the public agency overseeing the museum's development -- a $150,000 check.

The facilities district was formed in 2002 to build the interpretive center, but has encountered some problems along the way, most notably when project supporters learned they wouldn't be able to build at Columbia Point south, at the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers.

Objections by area tribes, coupled with strings attached to federal money, triggered an intensive review process that officials ultimately decided they couldn't overcome. That resulted in a decision to attempt to get clearance from the Army Corps of Engineers to build in the west end of Columbia Park.

After about a two-year delay, the project cleared some significant milestones this summer when the Corps approved a sublease between Richland and the facilities district that will allow the museum to be built on land in Columbia Park that the city leases from the Corps.

In another important step, the Corps also announced completion of an environmental review and found the proposed project is in compliance with federal environmental laws.

Museum proponents now are focused on finishing details of the building, getting permits and raising the remaining money needed for the total project budget. About $26 million has been raised so far, not including the Bechtel donation announced Wednesday.

Proponents often have said that breaking ground will be an important step toward revitalizing the fundraising campaign, which mostly stalled while the facilities district looked for an alternate site.

Mike Kluse, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and co-chairman of the museum's fundraising committee, urged those in the audience to show their support for the project through donations or buying museum memberships.

"My appeal to you is to dig deep and help make this happen," Kluse said.

But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who sent a video message to be aired during the groundbreaking, was given the honor of receiving the first membership for her role in securing federal money for the project.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., sent congratulatory letters that were read by staff members from their local offices.

Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau, said she looked forward to seeing the building completed.

"The Reach project reminds me of five memorable words from Winston Churchill back in World War II: 'Never, never, never give up,' " she said. "I look forward to being back in this spot with you all for the ribbon-cutting ceremony."

The groundbreaking was for the project's first phase, which involves extending water and sewer lines, building a driveway that eventually will become part of Columbia Park Trail, and getting the property in the west end of the park ready for the eventual construction of the museum itself.