With a gold shovel send-off, work on the Astoria Column site received its ceremonial start as about 60 people attended a ground breaking for the landscaping work Tuesday.

Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen, Friends of the Astoria Column President Jordan Schnitzer and landscaping designer Bob Murase gave speeches that in turn praised each other and the Column. After their remarks, they grabbed golden-bladed shovels and dug out a handful of soil.

In the glow of an afternoon sun on a gorgeous late summer day, the beauty of the Column grounds was, perhaps, the ceremony's highlight. As those at the event exulted over the Column, tourists walked around taking in the view. A few gliders nose-dived from the Column's observation deck.

On a day when it was fully evident, Murase described the Column's grounds as one of the most awesome sites he had ever visited.

"Per square foot I don't think you could get as magnificent or sacred a place like this," he said.

The landscaping work is one of the first phases to upgrade the Column site. Members of the nonprofit Friends of the Astoria Column have raised more than $1 million for the landscaping and hope to raise more for a planned interpretive center.

Murase said the changes to the Column include paving around the base, as well as a handicap-accessible ramp. The granite pavers surrounding the Column will bear the names of those who purchased donor bricks.

Schnitzer said paving stones are still available at $100 each.

One lingering question about the landscaping work was where the bas-relief map of the surrounding area and other monuments would be relocated. Murase said the time capsule and cable monument would be placed on the Column's eastern side and the map taken to a spot near the gift shop.

Parking will change to diagonal spaces accommodating 51 cars. Murase said there will be three bus areas and two handicapped parking spots. An overflow parking lot below the Column will be built with a path connecting the lot to the Column grounds.

Work is expected to begin and be finished before the start of winter, said Mitch Mitchum, Astoria's director of public works. He said most of the materials needed for the landscaping is already in the city - its just a matter of setting it all in place.

Schnitzer said the work is the first step in helping to "embrace education and outreach" for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the Column each year. He said the paved grounds will allow people to circle the Column and take in the story of the lower Columbia without having to slop through the sometimes muddy grass.

Work at the Column has been a 18-year effort and Schnitzer said it has been a highly cooperative relationship between the city and the private group. In light of that, he said he believes that the changes made to the Column will have a lasting benefit.

"We never didn't want to do anything to this site that no one would look back and wish we hadn't done," he said.

As work begins on the landscaping, Schnitzer said fund-raising is progressing for the Column's interpretive center. If the center, which is expected to cost about $6.5 million, can be built, Schnitzer said gift shop sales and increased visitors drawn to it should make the Column even more popular. And, he said, if the center can turn a profit, the Friends organization may be able to take some of the burden of maintaining the Column off the city.

Astoria resident Frankye Thompson, who attended the groundbreaking, said she doesn't share the Friends' enthusiasm for the interpretive center. Using what has become the rallying cry for those who oppose the project, she said the Column "interprets itself."

Thompson said she thinks the landscaping improvements and restoration of the Column are great projects and said she appreciated them. But she said a large number of people in Astoria believe an interpretive center is way too much for Coxcomb Hill, and feel its being pushed through by the city and the Friends group.

"Nobody's paying any attention," she said. "They just go right on with it."

If the center is to be built, Thompson said she wants the city to give its residents a chance "to show how many people are against it."

Van Dusen said plenty of time is left for more discussions on the interpretive center, but he maintains his support for the project based on the most recent plans saying the center does fit in with the Astor park plans.

"I'm high on the center," he said.

In remarks before the ground breaking, Van Dusen said he believes the Column has come a long way.

"As you can see it looks very good. ... I've never seen it look that good before," he said.

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