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County museum would be good fit for Hillsboro

It's not a done deal, but it looks like the Washington County Museum may be coming to downtown Hillsboro - and that would be good news for everyone in the region.

The proposal to let the museum use the unfinished space in the second floor of the Hillsboro Civic Center solves a problem that has vexed the city since the facility opened in 2005: How to find a suitable tenant for a bit of prime real estate that was supposed to be a public gathering space.

Plans for a downtown library fizzled when voters rejected a bond measure to finish the project. Seven years later, the museum could fill that 12,400-square-foot void quite nicely.

Although the museum isn't a public entity, the 56-year-old non-profit certainly serves the public, through its exhibits, educational efforts and archives.

The problem is that for nearly two decades, the museum has been located at Portland Community College's Rock Creek campus, a questionable location for a school and a less-than-ideal location for a museum.

Although the museum is less than 2.5 miles north of the Sunset Highway, it might as well be in Columbia County. Unless you're heading to class, there's no reason to be on the property, so spontaneous visits to the museum are rare.

And the museum, with its relatively small exhibit hall and lack of convenient public transportation, struggles to be a destination. If a dozen patrons wander in on a typical day, the staff is happy.

That's too bad.

The museum, under the direction of Sam Shogren, recently re-focused its mission to not only honor the county's Native American and pioneer heritage, but also tell the story of the birth of Oregon's high-tech industry, celebrate the state's most demographically diverse county and explore how our past affects the present and shapes the future.

With a larger space, along light rail and a major bus line in the center of the region's fastest growing city, this little-appreciated cultural gem could sparkle.

Picking up "walk-in" patrons from folks who come to vibrant twice-a-week farmers markets, the county administrative buildings or the nearby shops would help the museum. And drawing people to downtown Hillsboro would help show the rest of the county that there's life on the streets west of Tanasbourne.

Located within a few blocks of a professional theater, a community theater and a cultural arts center, two art galleries and a pair of music shops, the museum would help solidify the city's role as the county's cultural hub.

Being in a building that is wired for cable-access TV would open up additional opportunities to reach a wider audience, as does the public plaza just outside the doors.

Hillsboro also is at the crossroads of the old economy (traditional crop-based agriculture), the evolving economy (nurseries, wineries) and the new economies (high-tech, solar, pharmaceuticals).

As an organization whose mission statement speaks to a desire to honor the past while looking to the future, having a home in Hillsboro puts the museum in the middle of that transformation and should facilitate making connections to people in those industries - both old and new - that could translate into needed financial support.

Of course, there are still details to iron out. City officials need to make sure that forgoing 15 years of potential rental income is worth the trade-offs that the museum would bring. And the museum board of directors needs to make sure there's a plan to fund the needed improvements (pegged at over $1 million) to the space.

But, if the two sides can make it work - and we're betting they can - it will be a big win for all of Washington County.