Crew workers with T&D Contracting last week set in place massive trusses as part of the expansion of the Dungeness River Audubon Center. Construction site superintendent Pete Nesse said the project is still on target for a fall 2021 opening date. “Just a matter of putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” he said last week. Sequim Gazette photo by Michael Dashiell

Crew workers with T&D Contracting last week set in place massive trusses as part of the expansion of the Dungeness River Audubon Center. Construction site superintendent Pete Nesse said the project is still on target for a fall 2021 opening date. “Just a matter of putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” he said last week. Sequim Gazette photo by Michael Dashiell

Sequim’s River Center expansion taking shape

The most significant expansion to the Dungeness River Audubon Center since it opened in 2001 continues to take shape, with a series of 3,000-pound trusses that echo the nearby historic railroad bridge set in place last week.

With an eye on a fall 2021 opening, the multi-million dollar project continues to transform the community park into what partners from the center and Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe hope will become a destination location and tourist draw.

“(It’s) lot of hard work to see come through in a physical form,” center director Powell Jones said last week. He said he’s had a number of conversations with fellow Sequim natives who are local contractors working on the project, as they help construct “a building that interprets a river they grew up with and knew and love.”

While Sequim’s relatively mild winter weather hasn’t much slowed the expansion’s progress, the unexpected rise in buildings costs and scarcity of materials during the COVID-19 pandemic has created a bit of a funding gap, said Annette Hanson, chair of the “Inspire Wonder” capital campaign.

“We thought we are at our goal a year ago and then COVID hit,” she said last week. Delays in shipping coupled with large increases in lumber and other materials has campaign officials looking for another $1 million or so, she said.

“Now we’re making up for that shortfall,” she said.

Most of the outer structures are paid for, but items such as interior furniture and fixtures make up much of the remaining costs, she said.

While campaign officials are “forever grant writing,” Hanson said — they’re working on three more this month — the group has a plan laid out to focus over the next nine months on connecting with businesses and individuals in the area who have not yet contributed to the River Center expansion project. These companies or people are those whom the center “would meet their criteria or goals and objectives, or that would benefit them also,” Hanson said.

That interest will likely come from entities who’ll benefit from drawing tourism to the area, she said.

As the first designated Audubon Center in Washington state, Hanson said, “when they hear about it (we’ll have) more people coming to Sequim from across the country.

“It’s one more reason to keep them here another day.”

New look center

A project at years in the making, the Dungeness River Audubon Center’s expansion will add 5,900 square feet of meeting and exhibit space to the facility and park adjacent to the Dungeness River and historic Railroad Bridge.

Included in the expansion is an expanded area for interpretive exhibits, a commercial kitchen specifically designed for catering, a concession stand (including coffee), new entry, and a larger parking area with improved access to the River Center and the Olympic Discovery Trail.

The park’s popularity had over the years drawn about 50 community groups or government entities to use the center, putting a strain on the limited square footage.

“This takes the center to a whole new level of professionalism,” Hanson said. “Our capacity to serve the community is going to increase ten-fold.”

Annette Nesse, transportation program manager for the tribe, said while the park was already a popular place for locals and tourists, it wasn’t always clear to park users that anyone can come to the center to enjoy exhibits and programs.

“we can offer an obviously more welcoming facility that anyone can enjoy; it wasn’t always obvious (before),” Nesse said.

The multi-functionality of the center will be a boon for groups struggling to find meeting rooms of a certain size in Sequim.

Jones said the project will also help the park thoroughfares and entries become more ADA-friendly.

Jones said he’s particularly excited to see tribal artwork both inside the center and on outside structures.

“We’ve always had a cultural connection but I don’t think it’s obvious,” he said. “When people come into the center definitely going to see a cultural presence of Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, especially the art.”

The center will also mirror the Dungeness River Bridge; originally built in 1916 and replaced in 1930, it was abandoned for years until volunteers replaced planking and made it into part of a bike trail in the mid-1990s.

“(The center expansion) really ties a modern building with a 100-year-old transportation (structure),” Nesse said.

In June 2018, center and tribe partners announced the “Inspire Wonder” public fundraising campaign and — with community contributions, a $1.5 million state grant and $300,000 from the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust — the fundraising drive had about 95 percent of the $2.9 million fundraising goal.

When two bids in particular exceed the overall budget, project organizers chose to use the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe — owners of the land the center and park rest — as a general contractor and use a number of Olympic Peninsula-based subcontractors, a move they said not only cut costs but also provided local jobs.

COVID changes

In 1984, Annette and Mark Hanson joined with volunteers to build the Sequim Natural History Museum in a vacant room in the old Sequim High School building. With the help of local artists, they constructed an entire model watershed, from mountain to sea, filled with specimens of the appropriate flora and fauna in floor-to-ceiling dioramas. Not long after the museum went into storage in 1993, museum volunteers raised funds and, in partnership with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, found a new home of the exhibits on 10 acres of Dungeness River-adjacent park property.

The Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society and National Audubon Society joined the partnership in 1997; now, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Dungeness River Audubon Center and Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society jointly manage the park and the center.

“The reason we started this natural history museum back in 1980s was to bring people closer to nature,,” Hanson said.

“Especially now during COVID times, people are suffering from depression and isolation,” she said. “When (people) come down and walk along the trail and down to the river, it helps them out of that.”

Park officials shut down the center in mid-March 2020 as the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus reached the Olympic Peninsula.

“It’s never fun to shut down for any reason; of course, it was for public safety,” Jones said.

Educational staff at the River Center shifted dozens of programs and courses online. The move to a more “virtual” center experience has proved quite popular — an unexpected silver lining to the pandemic, Jones said.

“Twelve months ago I would have said we wouldn’t do a lot of online programming,” he said. Instead, a River Center mid-week educational program earlier this month drew 105 unique visitors, many of whom had two people participating, for an estimated draw of 150.

People are appreciating the opportunity to participate, even if it’s via a computer screen, he said.

“I have never received so many ‘thank you’ notes after our programming as this year,” Jones said.

That interest has Powell and others looking to keep virtual options available even after in-person programs are restored.

“If (people) can’t make it down to that talk … I want to still provide that for them,” he said. “COVID, as weird as it sounds, allowed us to develop those capacities.

“A new center gives us more capacity to do that.”

Next steps, partnerships

Along with more fundraising, center expansion advocates will also be creating some volunteer opportunities to help reduce costs and speed along the finish date, Hanson said, such as a pool of volunteers to help build and install fencing or some small-scale cabinetry projects.

“We’re looking at many ways our volunteers can help, which ties them closer to the project,” she said.

Hanson said while there are still months remaining int he project and dollars to be raised, the community partnerships have made the expansion possible, in particular the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

“They have stepped up and contributed to the very beginning with this project; without them couldn’t be where we are today,” she said.

“State, local, community — everyone has been amazing in donating to the this project.”

Jones said he’s appreciative of Railroad Bridge Park neighbors on West Hendrickson Road and Priest Lane for putting up with months of construction traffic and noise.

Expansion advocates also encourage anyone seeking more information or to sponsor/contribute to efforts to get in touch with Hanson at 360-670-6774 or annette_hanson@msn.com, or Jones at powell@dungenessrivercenter.org.

Read more about the expansion, including video updates on construction, at dungenessrivercenter.org/our_story/building-expansion.

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