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The long-awaited Hanford Reach Interpretive Center is nearing the end of its transformation from an idea to an institution that tells the region’s story with exhibits, initiatives and efforts inside and outside its walls.

And a major milestone on that path came Friday.

“We got occupancy (of the building) today,” said John Koberg, Reach center project manager.

Still, there’s plenty of work to do as the interpretive center’s July opening approaches.

Installation of the $2.4 million exhibit that will be housed in the permanent gallery started last week. That exhibit tells the story of the Hanford Reach land through time, from the ice-age floods that shaped the region to the naming of the Hanford Reach National Monument.

“It incorporates a lot of different elements, from the basalt flows to the plants and the animals, and the tribes and the early settlers, the Grand Coulee Dam — all of that,” said Lisa Toomey, chief executive officer of the Reach center.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife is paying for the exhibit, which was designed by the Ohio-based Hilferty firm and built by the Portland-based Formations.

The center’s second gallery will feature a $100,000 Manhattan Project exhibit — paid for through private donations — that reflects the area’s role in the top-secret project and World War II.

“What we’re trying to do is give people a sense of the effort that was undertaken here and the mobilization that was really quite phenomenal … and how it really transformed this community,” Toomey said. “It’s an amazing story.”

The Spokane-based helveticka firm is the Manhattan Project exhibit designer.

Numerous other exhibits and features are planned at the center, ranging from a digital planet sponsored by Battelle, to an aquarium sponsored by Bechtel, to an agriculture exhibit put together with the Mid-Columbia Ag Hall of Fame.

That exhibit will include a large satellite image showing hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the greater Mid-Columbia and the federal Bureau of Reclamation’s Columbia Basin Project.

Even the interpretive center’s floor will act as a storyteller, with stained concrete depicting ice-age floodwaters.

Outside, features will include two stages, a large irrigation pivot and metal silhouettes of Reach wildlife created by students from Kennewick’s Kamiakin High School. The silhouettes are to be installed this week.

The $3.35 million Reach center at the west end of Columbia Park has a 14,000-square-foot main level and a 10,000-square-foot basement.

Along with the two galleries, it includes a multipurpose room, offices, a store, an entry hall overlooking the Columbia River and a DVD viewing room that also will hold panel exhibits.

The center was designed to be expanded in the future. Toomey said fundraising for building expansion and additional exhibits, such as a Hanford exhibit focused on the Cold War period, will start once the Reach center opens.

Reach staffers are to begin moving in this week.

Toomey said the interpretive center will be “an incredible asset.”

After a long path to this point, “it’s real. This is the real thing,” she said. “We just want to start. I’m ready for us to fulfill a promise (to the community).”