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County museum eyes move to downtown Hillsboro

City to offer free use of unfinished space in civic center


For several years, city officials have been looking for a tenant to fill unoccupied space in the downtown Hillsboro Civic Center.

For even longer, the staff and board members at the Washington County Museum have been wondering how to attract people to their exhibits, classes and other activities held in their off-the-beaten-trail facility on Portland Community College's Rock Creek campus.

Now, it seems, both organizations are poised to help each other.

The Hillsboro City Council on Tuesday evening was set to consider a proposal that would allow the museum to move into a second-floor corner of city-owned space overlooking the public plaza along Main Street, just east of First Avenue.

Under the terms of a proposed 15-year lease, the museum would pay no monthly rent but would be responsible for all improvements to the unfinished 12,400-square-foot space that overlooks Civic Plaza on Main Street.

The space was intended to house a branch of the city library, but those plans were scuttled when voters rejected a bond measure to finish the project. It has been vacant since the civic center opened in 2005.

"The city views this as a great opportunity for our community, and in particular for our downtown revitalization efforts," John Southgate, Hillsboro's economic development manager wrote in a staff memo last week. "If this project moves forward, the museum will complement our other arts/culture/entertainment venues, which together serve to make downtown a more attractive place for visitors and residents alike."

The museum, meanwhile, has long struggled to lure visitors north of the Sunset Highway. When the staff and board members undertook a strategic planning process about four years ago, the museum's location and lack of easy public transportation emerged as big challenges, according to museum director Sam Shogren.

"The Hillsboro site fits most of the criteria we established," he said. "The way people are anticipating the growth of Washington County, I think it's really critical for the museum to find a more central location."

Shogren said the museum would not abandon its Rock Creek facility, which opened to much fanfare in January 1983 and in 2007, expanded to its current 11,000 square-feet of space. Instead, he said he envisions a "working library and archive," where research and education could continue and historical artifacts could be stored when not on exhibit.

Using a theater analogy, Shogren said the Hillsboro site could become the museum's public stage, while important behind-the-scenes work would get done at Rock Creek.

Along those lines, Shogren said one of the museum's commitments to the city was to extend museum hours into the evening.

"We want to help draw people into downtown Hillsboro and consolidate the city as an arts and culture destination," he said.

While the thought of a downtown location is exciting, it's also a bit daunting. Shogren figures the museum would need to make about $500,000 in immediate improvements to the facility, which is wired and plumbed, but otherwise mostly a concrete and steel shell. Equipping the space with interactive displays and other tools for staff and visitors could eventually cost another $1 million, he said.

The good news, Shogren said, is that the museum had already launched a capital campaign and has made a "significant" dent in the amount needed.