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Washington County museum's Rock Creek site nearly finished

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - Liza Schade, registrar for the Washington County Museum, shows a giant iron cauldron used to make Swiss cheese. Her audience includes Deanna Palm, chairwoman of Portland Community Colleges board of directors, and Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey (both behind the cauldron), among others. The Washington County Museum wrote a new chapter in its own history this week when it re-dedicated its facility at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Campus.

For the museum, once mired in recession and leadership changes, the long-awaited completion of the spacious new home for its Robert L. Benson Research Library and its many county-owned collections and archives is finally within sight.

While the everyday museum is now located in downtown Hillsboro just off the MAX line, the Rock Creek facility offers a place for researchers to delve more deeply into Washington County’s history and for staff to work on new displays and presentations. Among their missions is to share local history with about 10,000 students per year across the county.

A group of dignitaries snipped a ceremonial ribbon at the site on Monday. The brief rite included a smattering of politicians, museum supporters and Pat Reser, whose Reser Family Foundation made possible both the 2007 start of the project and the 2014 construction reboot that is now wrapping up.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - New Executive Director Mark S. Harmon spoke during a brief re-dedication ceremony.

“We hope this is the beginning of the next stage of success for the museum,” said Jim McCreight of Beaverton, who recently began his term as president of the museum’s board.

“It took us a while to get things up and going again,” said Betty Atteberry of Bethany, who served as the board’s president for four years. “It is wonderful.”

The most recent project budget of $300,000 helped finish the cavernous interior of the 25,000-square-foot building and also will cover installation of a new roof. Staff is still organizing collections and work space.

The shell of the expansion was built eight years ago, roughly increasing the size of the building 500 percent. But a lack of money, a move of the visitors museum to the Hillsboro Civic Center three years ago and leadership changes at the top put the brakes on the project until it was dusted off again last fall.

“We are a small organization,” said Business Manager Pam Madaus. “You have to focus on one thing before you move to the next.”

Joan H. Smith, the former executive director who began her nearly 20-year tenure with the opening of the original Rock Creek museum, said “it blows my mind” to walk into the greatly expanded facility today.

“This is the ongoing evolution of a dynamic organization,” said Smith, known as the museum’s executive director emeritus. The expanded building offers “a huge new potential to serve and be involved in the entire county.”

As a museum for visitors, the Rock Creek site was too far from the geographic and population center of the county, a situation that led to the 2012 partnership with Hillsboro. But as a place to archive, research and work, it’s ideal.

Smith said there is new excitement in the organization with the completion of the Rock Creek expansion and recent hire of Executive Director Mark S. Harmon.

Part of Harmon’s mission is to give the museum a higher profile in all communities within Washington County.

He started in May, nearly a year after the museum parted ways with former leader Sam Shogren. Shogren was hired in 2008, the year the Rock Creek construction halted, and presided during a long period of financial struggle partly tied to the Great Recession, museum leaders said.

Harmon said the building project itself is a testimony to the work of Madaus, who led the organization for 11 months without an executive director. She in turn deflected credit to key partners such as volunteer construction manager Dave Holscher, contractor Gary Zurbrugg and architect David Welsh.

“It’s been a long, long haul,” said Holscher, a retired contractor who shepherded the construction project.

McCreight, the board’s president, said the dreaming isn’t over yet for the museum, either.

With its major attraction’s home in the city of Hillsboro and its primary library and storage building owned by Portland Community College, McCreight said a time will come when the organization might look to purchase its own museum site.

He acknowledged that building a new museum would involve yet another fundraising campaign, something that doesn’t sound likely in the near term but could be reasonable in another five to seven years.

“At some point it would be good to be in our own space,” he said.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - Pat Reser of the Beaverton-based Reser Family Foundation looks over artifacts at the Washington County Museums recently expanded facility at Portland Community Colleges Rock Creek Campus.