Economic development opportunities are like seasons. They are here today, gone tomorrow. To be successful, the community must embrace those opportunities before they pass like the sunset over the horizon.  Fortunately, the Tri-Cities has embraced one of the most dynamic and exciting manufacturing opportunities in the United States, if not the world…..the Columbia Basin food and beverage industry.

According to the Washington State Employment Security Department, in 2015 food and beverage processing accounted for 44% of manufacturing companies, 60% of manufacturing wages and 70% of manufacturing employment in Benton and Franklin Counties. Obviously, food and beverage processing is the key player in local manufacturing. The industry is dominated by large, international companies such as Lamb Weston, Reser’s Fine Foods, Twin City Foods, Milne Fruit Products and Columbia Crest Winery. The area can proudly boast of its titles as the French Fry Capital of the world and the Wine Capital of Washington State, which is a big deal since Washington State is the #2 wine producing state in the Union.

But, successful industrial development is multi-faceted. The large companies provide significant employment, investment, taxes and creditability, in this case as a food and beverage region. They are a blessing and a necessity. Organizations like the Pasco Specialty Food Kitchen, work at the other end of the spectrum, providing start-ups with education, inspiration and a facility to begin their entrepreneurial journey. Small to medium sized companies that have mastered the industry and the ability to turn a profit, are finding comfort and neighbors in a number of cluster development projects such as Vintner’s Village in Prosser, Veneto Villagio in Richland and the Columbia Gardens Urban Wine & Artisan Village in Kennewick.

Columbia Gardens, a collaboration between the Port and City of Kennewick, is an urban renewal project located between Columbia Drive to the south and Duffy’s Pond to the north. It is hoped that Columbia Gardens, designed to change the landscape from worn and tired to fresh, lively and interesting will be the catalyst for new development from Columbia Drive to and along the Columbia River. Boutique wineries, a shoreline trail to the Columbia River and art will be featured.  Future phases and private development are planned to provide additional tasting rooms, retail shops, restaurants and other attractions along the waterfront near Clover Island.  The hope is to have the wineries up and running no later than the 2017 fall crush. A recently announced, and very exciting, addition to Columbia Gardens is a culinary school developed by Columbia Basin College.

The culinary school has a special place in my heart since it is one of the recommendations presented in the FABREO Program’s Columbia Basin Food & Beverage Processing Survey 2014. The other recommendations that have been accomplished to-date are:

  • Develop a Hospitality Program (Washington State University)
  • Develop a Technical Skills Training Program (Columbia Basin College)
  • Produce an event to showcase locally processed food to buyers (FABREO Expo)
  • Develop a public relations program (initiated in 2014 and ongoing)
  • Develop the Strategic Gateway concept, positioning the Columbia Basin as the strategic gateway between America and Asia (initiated by the Memorandum of Understanding between TRIDEC and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council in 2015 and ongoing)

The one recommendation that has not been accomplished is to Develop a Food Processing Training Program. TRIDEC will continue to work with the appropriate academic institutions to explore the possibility, design and implementation of such a program.

The culinary school will be Columbia Basin College’s first venture into Kennewick and it is an impressive and ambitious one. It is scheduled to be built next to Duffy’s Pond on a former manufactured home park, near the cable bridge. One hundred and twenty students will be educated in the finer points of the culinary arts in a two-story, 20,000 square foot facility. The school will feature an event center, two to three kitchens and a student run bakery and restaurant in coordination with the high school culinary program at the Tri-Tech Skills Center, also in Kennewick. The culinary school’s food focus will offer a nice balance to Columbia Garden’s wine focus. The hope is to have the culinary school up and running in approximately four years.

The Tri-Cities is blessed with the climate, soil and water resources to develop a world class food and beverage industry. A short drive throughout the area reinforces this fact. But, most important, are the visionary and courageous people in the community who have mastered the discipline of not only recognizing the opportunities, but, more important, Embracing the Opportunities!

By Gary A. White, Director, Business Retention & Expansion, TRIDEC