Our Voice: State feasibility study can strengthen Hanford Reach project

Just as the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center has reached some major milestones for its revamped museum project, a strong reminder about fiscal responsibility comes from the state of Washington.

A financial feasibility study ordered by the Department of Commerce and required under a new state law finds that project officials might be underestimating the center's costs and overestimating its revenue potential.

It would be ill advised to take the findings too seriously -- or not seriously enough.

That criticism sounds pretty standard for pro forma budgets for ambitious projects. It's hard to raise millions of dollars to build something if the financials don't look good on paper.

The independent review also questions the plan's reliance on volunteers and in-kind services to staff and develop the facility.

It asks leaders to "consider what they would do in case revenue expectations and continued support are not met."

Reach officials question the validity of some comparisons the report makes with other facilities and some numbers used in the analysis.

Richland Public Facilities District Vice President Rick Jansons went so far as to call the report "sloppy" and said it "overstated the risk."

Those are strong words when you consider the project's beleaguered history. The concept of the museum has been around for 10 years, and still no tangible facility exists.

The facility was originally designed on a grand scale at a prime riverfront location. But that site fell through several years into the process, sending the project reeling. Internal bickering and a divisive former director didn't help the project navigate the challenges. Fundraising lagged, and the project languished.

But about a year ago, new life came to the Reach with the hiring of a new director. Lisa Toomey, who has a long history in the community and a reinvigorated board ready to make some hard decisions.

The group went about mending fences with donors and potential contributors and scaled the museum down to something more realistic.

The momentum and good will put the project on a fast track for the past year, and many things have been accomplished, much to the group's credit. But the cautionary words of the independent review of the project should not be dismissed.

Among other things, the study:

w Called the plan for debt service "a fragile balance."

w Tagged the number of planned programs as "ambitious."

w Stated that heavy reliance on volunteers can be "risky."

w And that "ongoing fundraising may be complicated by the project's past, uncertain economic times and no dedicated paid staff leading the effort."

It's easy to become defensive when something you've poured time and sweat into is questioned. But the greater challenge is to take the criticism as constructive and use it as a tool to create an even better end product.

And the report was not without compliments to the Reach leadership. It noted the progress of the past year, and that in that time, the museum concept "has undergone a significant transformation that has streamlined operations and focused efforts on constructing the first building." It points out that the board and staff "have also been working to rebuild trust in the community."

So we hope the project's leaders take the report for what it's worth, heed the words of caution, make adjustments where they're warranted and push the project forward at breakneck speed to meet its construction goals.