The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks is asking for the community’s help with some much-needed renovations. The Corps of Engineers Foundation is launching a fundraiser to update the fish ladder, visitors center and gardens at the Locks.
The updates to the Locks are part of the Locks Master Plan, a joint project between the Corps Foundation, a national nonprofit, and Discover Your Northwest, a regional environmental nonprofit. Rich Deline, Corps Foundation founder and director, says the fish ladder is in dire need of repairs, adding that they’ll be improving the viewing area in order to make it a more educational experience for visitors. “The fish ladder is an abysmal dungeon,” Deline said. “If fish are running, people are happy. But that place is dingy – people don’t notice how bad it is.”
Deline says the Locks have over one million visitors each year, and people come a long way to see the salmon. He says the funds will help to install video screens above the windows that will explain information about the ladder and the species of fish running at that given time. The videos will explain the overall fish migration, and will be controlled by the rangers who host the tours through the Locks. They will also make the windows larger and cleaner, and rip out the concrete to create an amphitheatre arrangement with more comfortable seating. The lighting will be improved, and the video displays will keep visitors engaged even when the salmon aren’t visible.
Another area of the Locks in need of an update is the visitors center and gift shop, according to Deline. “It’s a good environment for people to sit down and be educated about the history and ecosystem even if there are no fish,” Deline says. The gift shop improvements will help to raise future funds for the Locks, because all money earned from store purchases will go into educational programs. Of the million visitors each year, Deline says just 10 percent visit the visitors center and gift shop, and half of those are just there to use the bathroom. “It’s a missed opportunity to support the Locks program,” he says. “With a decent center and gift shop, there will be some cash flow to help support the program, which will ultimately make it self-supporting.” Deline added that the visitors center used to be an old blacksmith shop, and that they want to restore features of the shop and have blacksmith items for sale for visitors.
Because of the funding structure and budget constraints of the Army Corps of Engineers, Deline says these improvements can’t be made without community support. The Corps’ funding only covers operational updates and renovations, such as fixing the dam walls and Locks themselves. The operational funds are based on the commercial tonnage of ship cargo, not the actual boat traffic that goes through the Locks on a daily basis. According to a press release from the Corps Foundation, commercial cargo has declined significantly and is now a small fraction of the annual 50,000 or more boats that use the Locks each year. That means budgets are squeezed even further, resulting in less than 60 cents per visitor for updates to the recreational and educational improvements to the Locks.
The foundation hopes to raise between $2-5 million for the updates and improvements. Donors will be memorialized on bricks which will be visible in the new fish ladder viewing area. Deline says they are setting up an online fundraiser which will be found on the new Locks website, and for now, donors can give to the Corps Foundation on their donation page, earmarking all funds to the Locks. The gift shop at the Locks is also accepting donations.
Deline says the public’s support is crucial to completing the Locks’ updates, which will greatly improve one of Seattle’s most historic landmarks. He hopes many of the updates will be completed by the centennial in 2017.