OLYMPIA — Plans for a Washington State Heritage Center, where many of the state’s valuable artifacts could be brought together under one roof, are likely to stall for another year despite a push by Secretary of State Kim Wyman.
Legislators say the state budget is too tight to accommodate the $150 million project, but the newly elected secretary of state — who pushed for the center during her campaign — wants lawmakers to approve it this session.
The center, which would be built on the Capitol Campus, would combine the Washington State Archives and the Washington State Library and provide access to the state’s many treasures, from great-grandmothers’ birth certificates to governors’ chairs, and legislative records to antique photos of Seattle houses. These artifacts are currently stored all over the state in places as unlikely as a Cold War-era bomb shelter, and lawmakers have been trying for more than two decades to give them a proper home.
After years of delay, Wyman said the project needs to get “back on track.”
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“I really think it’s important when the kids get off the bus, or when a family comes over here from Spokane, they have that opportunity to touch and feel our state’s history and that legacy.”
But Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, who chairs the House Capital Budget Committee, said the center isn’t a priority this session, when there is a need to improve the buildings that house the state’s many departments and employees.
“I’ve seen state employees working in cramped buildings that are practically caving in,” Dunshee said. “ When (Wyman) has to balance a budget for this place, then she can call it a key issue.”
The Olympia portion of the archives is packed into a Cold War-era bomb shelter, built in the early 1960 to protect the governor and state legislators should the Capitol be attacked by the Soviet Union. The building houses about 100,000 boxes of documents in temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms — including “The Vault,” which holds documents from Washington governors since Isaac Stevens served as territorial governor in the 1850s. Stevens’ chair, custom-built to fit his small frame, is also stored in the room.
Archived material that is accessed less frequently is stored in Bellevue, Bellingham, Ellensburg and Cheney.
State Archivist Steve Excell said those facilities are expected to fill up sometime this year, as the collection grows to include more marriage certificates, donated photos, land information and court papers. Archivists have been scanning documents for about eight years so the public can access them online, but most original documents are maintained, should they be needed for legal purposes or because they are considered important to Washington’s history.
The state library moved to Tumwater in 2001 when the Nisqually earthquake damaged several Capitol buildings. The state pays about $1.2 million a year to rent the building, which wasn’t designed to house a library. Excell said a new facility would be more user-friendly.
“If the heritage center were built, we would have a research room where state librarians could offer help,” Excell said. “It would be a one-stop shop for research.”
The Washington State Heritage Center also would have an educational component, with exhibits modeled after the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
“All of our archive space is full, so we’re going to have to do something soon,” Excell said. “So if we’re going to do something we might as well do something that benefits the public, too.”
Legislators first considered the heritage center about 30 years ago when former Gov. John Spellman held office. In 2007, legislators approved the Washington State Heritage Center at the urging of then-Secretary of State Sam Reed. Money was to be raised through bonds and private donations.
By 2008, an architect had almost completed plans for the structure, said David Ammons, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office. But legislators put the project on hold in 2009, moving funding into the state’s general account.
Over the next few years, the Office of the Secretary of State considered lower-cost options for the center. The current plan for a smaller center is about $20 million cheaper, with the latest estimate coming in at $150 million.
The center would be built on the site of the dilapidated General Administration building, which would cost about $8 million to tear down.
Ammons said Wyman is still hopeful that the project will go through this year.
The secretary of state has been seeking support from new legislators and wants to get House and Senate leadership on board.
Amelia Dickson: 360-236-8266 or email@example.com.
On Twitter: @ameliadickson