$10M for D.C. center – Underground project planned

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $10 million towards a $265 million underground visitors center that would be the biggest Capitol Hill construction project since the 19th century, the Associated Press reports.

“We think it’s an incredibly important project and we’re proud to be a part of it,” Trevor Neilson, the foundation’s public affairs director, told AP.

Neilson said the proposed donation had been planned for many months and was not related the Justice Department’s antitrust suit against Microsoft.

The construction of a visitors center has been under consideration for a  decade. After a mentally disturbed gunman shot two police officers in the Capitol Building in 1998, a consensus grew that the center was needed to improve building security.

The center also will provide historical displays, bathrooms and food for the 18,000 people who tour the Capitol every day.  Tourists currently wait in lines outside the building for tours.

The Capitol Preservation Commission is overseeing plans for the visitors center. The commission is co-chaired by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

The commission has asked the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia to set up a new nonprofit group to raise $100 million in private contributions for the center.

David Morse, Pew public affairs director, said the new group was filing papers with the IRS to gain nonprofit status.

Pew is ready to contribute $10 million to the Capitol Hill visitors centor, Morse said. Pew developed a visitor center at the Independence Mall in Philadelphia.

Morse said the group has $35 million to $40 million in commitments toward the $100 million to be raised from private sources for the center.  Another $100 million will come from public funds and the rest from the sale of commemorative coins and other revenues.

Planners say they hope to complete the center by 2005.

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