The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is forging ahead with a $3.2 million utilities overhaul across 16 historic structures.
Once it’s completed, the National Park Service hopes the 21st-century amenities set against a 19th-century backdrop will draw tenants to the buildings, said Tracy Fortmann, park superintendent. The completion of the project is one of the staff’s major goals as it eyes the rest of 2019.
Prior to the overhaul, none of the utilities systems in the historic buildings had been touched since 1930 and were well beyond their service lives.
“We’re looking at reuse,” Fortmann said. “How do you protect the history, speak to the history and preserve that history, but also give, if you will, new life to the buildings?”
The National Park Service awarded the utilities contract to Portland-based Westech Construction. They’re replacing water, sewer, electrical and communication lines and adding modern fire-suppression systems to each of the buildings, located in the East and South Vancouver Barracks.
Crews broke ground in the fall and are scheduled to have their work wrapped up by August, said Project Manager Mary Hazell. At that point, the park service will start seeking tenants to occupy the buildings — offices, retail, event spaces and food vendors. They’re looking to find partners in business, nonprofit or government work.
“(The buildings) look pretty good from the outside, but we couldn’t really renovate another one or get them occupied until we dealt with the antiquated utilities system,” Hazell said.
The overhaul makes up Phase Two of the historic site’s utilities upgrades. Phase One of the projects, completed in 2016, replaced about 15 percent of water lines, hydrants, sewer lines, and underground electrical infrastructure.
It’s all part of Fort Vancouver’s master plan, Hazell said. Moving forward, the next step will be to adjust vehicle and pedestrian traffic patterns to be safer and more intuitive.
“It’s about improved circulation and access that’s more sensical,” Hazell said.
That will include changing the location of entrances and exits, adding sidewalks and parking lots, and potentially extending a couple of streets to create intersections.
The site was designed for military use, not for the general public.
“It was a living, breathing post. … it really wasn’t for a general member of the public,” Fortmann said. “We’ve really sought ways to create paths and trails. It’s an amazing site that you can access by foot, by bike — we want to encourage people to do that.”
Fortunately, the utilities work was able to continue through the 35-day federal government shutdown that furloughed all nonessential government employees until Jan. 28.
But the shutdown meant that Fort Vancouver’s 28 full-time staff members transitioned into the new year in limbo.
That’s time that usually would have been spent tallying head counts and event totals from the prior year, so site management is still playing catch-up, Fortmann said. Right now, they’re operating off the figures in their 2017 annual report. Those figures — 1.12 million visitors, 11,000 students, 620 volunteers — are outdated at this point.
However, the fort emerged from the furlough without any lasting impact, Fortmann wrote in her February newsletter.
“Those who visited the site were respectful, understanding, and supportive. I am very pleased to report that no incidents of damage or vandalism occurred,” Fortmann wrote.