The Reach Museum survived the pandemic, increasing admissions beyond pre-pandemic levels, celebrating its eighth anniversary and looking to the future with hope for an expansion at its Richland facility overlooking the Columbia River.
“It’s really a milestone for us,” said Rosanna Sharpe, executive director.
The museum was meeting its goals before the Covid-19 pandemic forced it to shut down.
“Just after our fifth anniversary, we were trending upward in terms of our mission, growing our membership, our foundation support and engagement with the community. Then everything kind of cut off at the knees, like many organizations; we were not unique. So, we had to really have an austere program.”
The Reach Museum opened in 2014 and celebrates the natural and scientific history of the Mid-Columbia along with its people and cultures. It serves as the epicenter for tourism related to the Ice Age Floods and the Hanford Reach National Monument, for which it is named.
To survive with its doors closed for a full year, the Reach cut staff, reorganized those who remained and applied for and received $180,000 through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, which made loans to help shuttered venues remain operational.
Its current annual budget is $689,000, compared to $890,000 prior to the pandemic.
“We’re still being very conscientious about our spending,” Sharpe said. It maintains a $500,000 reserve.
About a third of its current funding comes from a .033% sales tax levied on local retail spending and directed to the Richland Public Facilities District, which manages the facility.
The Reach tries to rely on the fund as little as possible, but it’s been useful during the crisis.
“Luckily, the economy was still generating retail sales tax and our membership was holding steady. So even though we reduced our expenses, we still had income,” Sharpe said.
The Reach tries not to rely solely on this fund and doesn’t have to draw from it.
Its remaining budget ideally includes a third from The Reach Foundation, a nonprofit which raises money through annual events, grants, endowment contributions and other aid. It has provided $80,000 this year.
The remaining third of the budget is from admissions, store sales and facility rentals.
“Right now, we’re rebuilding our earned income, and at the same time the endowment is underperforming because of the stock market, so we’re relying more on the fund. We tried to present and approve a sustainable budget. But there are still some unknowns out on recovery, so we’re still managing our resources very, very economically,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe said it will remain that way until there is more stability in predicting future tourism.
About half of its visitors are from outside the Tri-Cities.
“Regional tourism is on the rise. Gas prices are keeping people from flying places,” Sharpe said. “Many people are discovering their own backyards. So, these folks may be from Oregon, Idaho or Montana, looking for three- or four-day vacations that are affordable.”
Sharpe said when river cruises are in operation, between April and October, visitor numbers jump by half. Cruise passengers can board a bus, often at Howard Amon Park, and visit The Reach at 1943 Columbia Park Trail in Richland. Or passengers can take a hop-on, hop-off tour and make multiple stops around the area.
The museum invoices the cruise line for the visitors, most of whom stay about an hour.
These visits have been affected by the lack of B Reactor National Historic Landmark tours running. Visitors would get an orientation at The Reach before heading out to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Limited tours resumed for 2022 and then paused again as the community spread of Covid-19 increased. Still, attendance exceeded its pre-pandemic admissions for the second quarter of 2022, with more than 27,000 visitors compared to 25,000 during the same period in 2019.
The Reach puts a large effort into making the museum accessible to all, trying to remove as many financial barriers as possible, while also presenting educational opportunities to students.
“You can visit the Reach Museum without necessarily coming here. Whether that’s through our online programs or through outreach. We have several contracts with local school districts that provide kids with three exposures each year while they’re in elementary school. Our educators go into the classrooms or rangers provide specialized content, and the kids do a field trip, say to McNary Wildlife Refuge,” Sharpe said.
It recently partnered with the Richland Public Library to offer museum passes that may be checked out, just like other library materials. Fifty-seven library patrons used this option the first month it was available.
The Reach intends to start the same offering at the Mid-Columbia Libraries, and it is also part of the Museums for All program, which provides free or reduced admission for those receiving food assistance benefits.
Those with memberships to other museums worldwide also can visit The Reach at no extra expense as part of the Association of Science and Technology Centers reciprocal program.
“We’re trying to build a consistent, ongoing relationship with young people and their families over time,” Sharpe said. “We hope that folks become familiar and connected with their museum, and when they grow up and have kids, they want to share that with them also. The museum experience becomes generational. But that takes time, of course. And so, we hope we’re building supporters for the future through our education programs.”
Building for the future includes building out the museum further, if possible, to create a temporary rotating gallery space.
“We lack the ability to bring in a major show, say, from the Smithsonian. Or, if the Museum of Flight was doing a travelling show, there’s nowhere in the Tri-Cities to accommodate it. We need about 3,000 square feet of museum exhibit space that meets security and environmental requirements.”
Planners also would like a permanent educational space with a dedicated classroom instead of the pop-up concept that’s been in use, plus outdoor restrooms to support more use of the grounds, including a covered area for events.
The growth project is a concept, with some architectural drawings to accompany it and some private funders interested, but it’s not yet a committed plan.
“Between existing legislation that allows us to collect sales tax, and other grants out there, we think we could do this,” Sharpe said. “With expansions also come higher operating costs. We need to be able to make sure we have a stainable budget for not only the expansion but keeping that operating for years to come.”
Part of budgeting for the future has included shifting staff around.
This included four layoffs in 2020 from 11 employees at the time the museum closed.
It reopened part time a year later.
“We moved people to where the needs are and hope to keep building from that,” Sharpe said.
Some positions have been merged; others contracted out. It employs six full time and two part time. All have reduced hours from pre-pandemic levels besides maintenance workers.
One of those laid off was dedicated to event rentals, a job now absorbed by another staffer as they work to build bookings back up with reunions, proms, weddings and more. The Reach had four events booked in June and expected a busier August, but it’s still only booking about half of the private events it once did.
Heading up the museum for five years and navigating it through the closure has Sharpe anxious to rebuild its momentum and see future plans come to fruition.
She’s hoping community members will step up to serve on the board for the Reach Foundation.
“There are a lot of new retirees out there who still want to connect with their community, and this is a great way to do that,” she said.
She expects strategic planning to get underway again once Richland fills openings on its Public Facilities District board.
In the meantime, Sharpe hopes the community will pay them a visit.
“We know that locally, families and visitors want to be able to get outside and also have a cultural experience. The museum has weathered the worst part of the storm and we’re doing a lot better than many of our colleagues. We are still in financial need, but we have a plan, and I think we will be here for many years to come.”
Online at visitthereach.us.
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