Heritage Center would be a gift to our future

One of the casualties of the recession was the original plan for the Heritage Center – a grand visitor welcoming building planned for the state Capitol Campus. The center is to have a sandstone exterior and be constructed in the monumental style of the Capitol building and the Temple of Justice.

When state revenue tanked last year, so did anticipated funding for the project.

The good news is the project is not dead. It has been scaled back from $141 million to $116 million and state officials are in the process of shifting the building to a new site.

It’s imperative that the Legislature keep the momentum going.

Keeper of the Heritage Center vision is Secretary of State Sam Reed. He has said, “This building will be a center for the priceless, historical treasures of the State Archives, the State Library and the State Capital Museum’s exhibits. Colorful displays and interactive exhibits will immerse visitors in the story of our past and inspire a thirst for all history has to offer. In Washington, D.C., you can walk inside the National Archives, and you are blown away by history. Visitors immediately get a sense of our nation, who we are and what we believe. Visitors to our state Capitol deserve the same.”

Reed is right. Replicating the National Archives on the state Capitol Campus is a magnificent vision and will be an incredible gift to future generations. Lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire simply must find a way to make it happen – even in this awful economy.

Anyone who has spent any time on the Capitol Campus has heard visitors rave about it’s beauty and the magnificence of the structures. There are some people who make a hobby of visiting every capital in the nation and routinely those visitors say Washington’s campus is the best in the country. The Heritage Center builds on that foundation.

What Washington lacks, however, is a fitting welcoming center – a place where the thousands of schoolchildren and adults who visit the campus yearly, can learn about Washington history and start their campus tour. That’s the goal of the Heritage Center.

It’s a place where visitors can discover the facts about the founding of Washington Territory and trace our history through statehood. It’s a place where researchers can find government documents and newspaper clippings dating back decades. It’s a place where people interested in tracing their ancestry can ferret out documents filed in the state’s voluminous archives.

Reed, with solid support from Gregoire and 22nd District Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, were able to persuade lawmakers to turn the Heritage Center vision into a reality. It was to be built overlooking Capitol Lake, on the bluff near the conservatory and General Administration Building.

Reed proposed – and lawmakers agreed – that the Heritage Center project should be paid for with an additional assessment on document filings in county auditors’ offices. While there are ups and downs in the filing of deeds and other legal documents, the revenue stream tends to even out over the years.

But the recent recession has seen a sharp downturn in document filings and thus the need to scale back the project. A convention center component was scrapped and other space for visiting exhibits and a learning center for children have been scaled back. While the budget has been cut $25 million, the building has been trimmed from 205,000 square feet to 138,000 square feet.

The influential State Capitol Committee has also recommended that the site for the Heritage Center be shifted from the bluff overlooking the lake to the visitor center site off Capitol Way. It’s a solid recommendation as the Heritage Center would be great portal to the historical campus district with immediate access to Interstate 5 via the 14th Avenue tunnel.

There are issues to be worked out with residents in the South Capitol Neighborhood, and Fraser has a different location in mind. Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, a project supporter, also questions the funding source.

These are legitimate issues that merit further study, debate and compromise.

What must not be lost is the Heritage Center vision and its pivotal importance for the state Capitol Campus, residents of Washington state and future generations.