Reach center's success linked to Columbia Point

By the Herald editorial staff

The Hanford Reach Interpretive Center has been dealt a big blow from groups its organizers considered stakeholders in the project.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Nation have rejected the Richland Public Facilities District's long-standing plan to build the center near the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers.

While the tribes support the idea of an interpretive center and sharing the history of the region with visitors, tribal leaders say the proposed location is the problem.

But the bigger problem is in moving it to another location, since it's unlikely any suitable alternative exists.

The combination of proximity to the river, easy access and open space at the site is unique.

Tribal leaders point out the land at Columbia Point South is historically significant, once serving as a place where Northwest Indians conducted trade and held social gatherings.

Because Federal Highway Administration dollars have been allocated for the interpretive center, the tribes get a significant say in the development.

At the prompting of the Umatillas and the Wanapum tribe, the National Park Service designated Columbia Point South for the National Register of Historic places, strengthening the tribes' hand.

As it stands, the only way the project can move forward as planned and keep the federal highway dollars is for the feds to agree that Columbia Point South is the only viable location.

The site is ideal in the view of most people involved in the planning. Regardless, the tribes' rejection puts the proposal back to square one, at least for the time being.

Plans for the interpretive center are ambitious, and success depends on factors that come together at Columbia Point South.

Any alternatives to the proposed site that we've heard suggested raise serious questions. If the center is too far from the river or too hard to find, it won't draw the visitors it needs.

It's likely that no other site is viable -- whether or not that's the official finding.

Besides, there's no part of the Columbia River that isn't culturally significant.

Richland's mayor hit the nail on the head when he said he believed other sites along the river would likely be fraught with the same issue -- disturbing grounds deemed significant by the tribes.

If a site for the interpretive center can't be found in Richland, that jeopardizes even more of funding obtained for the $40.5 million project.

The city and the PFD would have to return money to the state for bonds that were sold for the project.

Planners have already gone to extremes to make sure the historic land at Columbia Park South would not be disturbed by construction of the interpretive center.

Plans call for 150,000 cubic yards of topsoil to be placed on top of the site, and the setback from the river would be double the required distance, extending to 400 feet. All in an effort to protect the site, preserve its history and tell its story.

But the tribes are standing firm on their desire to prevent development at the point. It's too bad that a compromise remains elusive, since all sides in the dispute stand to benefit from the project.

For now, the interpretive center seems to be at a standstill, with the tribes holding the power to prevent construction at Columbia Point South.

Mediation may be the only remedy here. The tribes have tentatively agreed to meet with city officials again in the spring.

Let's hope they can find some common ground. An agreement that allows the project to move forward is in everyone's interest.