On Jan. 16, 2003, a Roll Call headline declared: “Weather No Setback for CVC.” The first sentence of Suzanne Nelson’s article explained that, “A wetter-than-anticipated winter has not slowed progress on construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, according to officials, and the second phase of the massive project is set to begin soon.”
On Sept. 19, 2005, Roll Call ran the headline: “CVC Delayed Again, Until Late 2006 or Even ’07.”
On March 9, 2007, the Washington Post announced: “Capitol Visitor Center Debut Again Delayed: Opening Now Set for Summer 2008 as Security Upgrades Add to Costs.”
Fast forward. It's Saturday, Nov. 15, 2008. And finally, the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) is almost ready for tourists.
Congress opens the facility in December. It’s three years late and $356 million over budget.
A lot’s happened since Congress first broke ground for the CVC in 2000. Let's review.
AIG was solvent.
Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.
The Boston Red Sox won the World Series. Twice.
The United States invaded Iraq.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was not House speaker.
Three presidential elections.
And the Florida election dispute. That was so long ago it seems like the Mesozoic Era.
For those of us who work at the Capitol, construction of the CVC was excruciating to watch.
First they dug a mammoth hole in the ground between the Capitol and the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.
They barricaded the entire east side of the Capitol with a 14-foot Berlin Wall, lined with barbed wire in spots. And they closed off some of the underground tunnels in the Capitol that link the House with the Senate.
The best part of about the completion of the CVC is getting the Capitol back.
Walking back from lunch the other day on the House side, I marveled at an unobstructed view of the Dome and east steps. It had been so long, I forgot that view even existed.
And it will be exciting to explore the CVC and its exhibits documenting the history of the Capitol.
But still there’s skepticism.
At a press conference unveiling the CVC to reporters, officials said the venue is designed to inform, involve and inspire visitors at the Capitol.
I asked Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers how inspired visitors will be when those of us in the media inform taxpayers how involved they are in footing the project’s bill.
“Is there a question in there?” an obviously miffed Ayers shot back at me.
There’s little question visitors will embrace the CVC’s grandeur. Blocks of Tennessee marble. Magnificent views through underground skylights. High-tech displays. Movies. Twenty-six restrooms. This place is Congressional Disneyland. All that’s missing is a log flume. What’s not to like?
At the press conference, CVC CEO Terrie Rouse didn’t even refer to the Capitol. She described it as “the historic building.” Almost like it was a relic from another era. An antique best kept under glass.
That prompted Dean Norland of ABC News to ask whether there was a risk that visitors might prefer the CVC to the Capitol.
Compared with the CVC, who needs the 19th Century Capitol? They do the stuff over there that Mrs. Rudebaugh talked about in sophomore social studies (the lessons you snoozed through in a Tryptophan coma after fifth-period lunch).
The visitor center even has a marketing director — Tom Fontana, who used to be the project's communications director for years.
Maybe he could be put to good use. As Congress opens its swank, new visitor center, Congressional approval ratings wade in the low teens.
Could Fontana turn that around, too? Better late than never.
Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.