Cautious optimism as Senate passes $4M in funding for United Learning Center project in Centralia


Nearly two and a half years after the project broke ground in ceremonial fashion, the United Learning Center in Centralia is one step closer to reality after the U.S. Senate approved a $4 million grant for the project this week.

Announced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, the funding must now survive both the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a conference committee. Congress must pass either a stopgap funding bill or approve 12 final appropriation bills by Nov. 17 to avert a government shutdown.

The Senate voted Wednesday to approve a Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) funding bill for fiscal year 2024 that includes $4 million for the project, and $65 million for 22 projects in Washington state in total.

The T-HUD bill was one of three the Senate approved on Wednesday by a vote of 82-15.

“As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I worked hard to make sure this legislative package included major wins for Washington state and reflected our state’s funding priorities — and I am proud we were able to secure hundreds of millions of dollars across these bills for important projects and programs that families and businesses throughout Washington rely on,” Murray said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “These resources will go directly into our communities: to deliver top-notch medical care for our veterans, fix and upgrade local infrastructure, improve rural emergency communications networks, build more affordable housing across Washington state, and so much more.”

For planners, inclusion of the funding in the Senate bill brought cautious optimism.

“I was super excited,” Project Manager Todd Chaput said, recalling when he was told by Murray’s office the funding cleared the Senate. “I immediately sent out a notice to our partners that the ball is rolling again.”

Construction on the project, initially anticipated to open this fall, could begin in January and be completed by the fall of 2025 if the funding is secured. When completed, the 12,800-square-foot educational facility will be built on the corner of Maple and North Pearl streets. In addition to the federal money, funding sources for the project include:

• $3 million from the Washington state Department of Commerce

• $1 million from Discover! Children's Museum, Department of Commerce

• $1.9 million from the City of Centralia’s real estate excise tax funds

• A $1 million grant for the TransAlta Coal Transition Board

In September 2021, the Bezos Academy signed a 10-year lease with United Way of Lewis County to operate a preschool for roughly students from low-income families at the facility, according to previous Chronicle reporting.

Still, the project has faced obstacles, and Chaput said while “it’s cleared another milestone,” it’s not done yet.

In January, Chaput told the Centralia City Council that while the project was moving forward, he continued to look for other funding sources after he discovered the project wouldn’t qualify for a separate federal grant.

Since a ceremonial groundbreaking in June 2021, complete with photo opportunities for local officials and a giant check, the lot has sat vacant. At the event, there was optimism the facility could open in the fall of 2022, according to previous Chronicle reporting. As of Thursday, the Lewis County United Way’s information site says the site would open in fall of this year.

“That’s why I’m being very cautious,” Chaput said of the latest approval. “So that we don’t have that false start again.”

Chaput said work continues to secure a tax credit to cover the remaining “funding gap” for the project.

The funding must still clear the House of Representatives. Chaput said he’s had prior discussions with staff members for Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, but he’s not discussed the project since the Senate approved the funds.

“I’m working to pass bipartisan funding bills that invest in Southwest Washington, and that includes money for local projects like the United Learning Center in Lewis County, the I-5 bridge, and other funding priorities for our communities,” Gluesenkamp Perez said in a statement Thursday.

In her remarks on the Senate floor, Murray said the three funding bills are “first and only serious, bipartisan appropriations bills to clear either chamber of Congress.”

“Let’s be clear: we still have a lot of work to do to pass full-year funding with the investments we need to keep the U.S. strong, safe, and competitive — especially in a moment that truly calls for American leadership,” Murray said. “But today, we’ve shown there is a clear roadmap for how we can best get our work done. Importantly, this bill delivers for Washington state and shows that Congress can still do its job.”