Washington state

Reach center in Richland celebrates ‘miracle’ first year

It’s been a whirlwind first year for the Reach center in Richland.

Since the facility opened last July, it’s drawn thousands of visitors from the Tri-Cities and beyond.

It’s been the site of educational programs for kids and education forums for adults.

It’s seen its main exhibits complemented by several new displays that help tell the stories of the region’s land, history and people.

And officials have continued dreaming and planning for the center’s future.

To hit the one-year mark is exciting, CEO Lisa Toomey said.

“I believe this was a miracle,” she said. “I think it’s kind of re-framed my sense of what miracles are. I think (it represents) this moment when all these people came together at the right time for the right reasons, and they got the job done.”

The Reach center — a hybrid interpretive center, museum, science center and performing arts venue — sits at the west end of Columbia Park.

Its 14,000-square-foot ground level has two main galleries plus other features, including a store, multipurpose room and great hall that overlooks the Columbia River.

Gallery 1 holds an exhibit on the Hanford Reach and surrounding land through time, while Gallery 2 tells of the Manhattan Project and the Hanford site’s early days. While those stories have been mainstays, officials also have brought in other displays throughout the year to offer variety — from an exhibit showcasing the history and contributions of Energy Northwest to one celebrating 50 years of hydroplane racing in the Tri-Cities.

The Reach’s outdoor space also is used to teach and inspire, with everything from garden boxes to sculptures of Reach wildlife to two outdoor stages.

Mid-Columbia Musical Theatre is wrapping up a run of The Music Man on the center’s main outdoor stage. The last show is July 5.

Education offerings also have been a central part of the Reach’s first year, from numerous camps and activities for kids to forums on climate change, GMOs and the Russian ban on U.S. food imports. The Reach also runs a robust tour program, taking people out of the facility — on jet boats, on buses, on hikes — to delve further into the region’s stories.

As of the end of May, the Reach had drawn about 35,000 visitors, well above the 25,000 visitors projected for the first year. June attendance figures weren’t available last week.

The Reach also had about 800 members — a milestone it wasn’t projected to reach until its fifth year.

Kim Shugart, senior vice president of Visit Tri-Cities, said the Reach center complements other attractions in the area and has a well-rounded lineup of family-friendly offerings.

Its strength is in its diversity, she said.

“They’ve done a great job in the variety of what they offer,” Shugart said. “It’s more than just the displays, although those are outstanding.”

The road to the Reach center’s opening wasn’t smooth. The effort to build the facility spanned more than a decade, starting soon after President Clinton established the 196,000-acre Hanford Reach National Monument in 2000. At one point, plans called for a far larger facility in a different location, but problems with the site arose and fundraising slowed as the recession set in.

Public confidence in the long-awaited project dropped as the years went on.

But the center eventually gained renewed momentum with a scaled-back vision and new leadership on the staff and board.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony last summer, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray described the Reach center as an enduring testament to the community’s dedication.

“To me, this is about all the people who never gave up. I’m so proud to be standing with all of you in front of this absolutely incredible facility, to see all the years of hard work become a reality,” she said.

Financially, the Reach center isn’t yet self-sustaining, but Toomey said the goal is for it to be in three years and it’s making progress. A more detailed financial picture of the first year won’t be available until the board meets for a planning workshop July 6.

As for the Reach’s future, plans abound. A top priority is finishing the 10,000-square-foot basement. The board has authorized conceptual designs for a food- and agriculture-related space, including a kitchen, room for vendors and exhibit space. Fundraising is under way.

In the longer term, the hope is to expand Gallery 2 to tell more of the Hanford story, with space for a Coyote Canyon mammoth dig exhibit and a science, technology, engineering and math lab.

Even longer term, the idea is to add an education wing at the Reach site.

As the Reach marks its first year, Toomey said she’s “humbled and awed” by the staff, volunteers and board leaders’ efforts.

The Reach tells the stories of the region, and part of its own story is overcoming, persevering.

The center “reminds me of the unlimited power of this community,” Toomey said.