Despite a global pandemic leading to rising construction costs and difficulty obtaining materials throughout the U.S., the Port of Benton has tried to make good use of 2021, focusing on its infrastructure to attract new business to the Mid-Columbia.
Diahann Howard, executive director, said tourism is a big driver of its economic mission, but the port, which serves a population of more than 56,000 and has a budget of $11.5 million for 2021, also is working to attract new manufacturing, research and technology companies to the area.
One new project has Howard especially excited.
“We’ve bonded $4 million to build the Hanford History Project,” she said.
The Tri-Cities Research District houses many historical assets that document how the region and its people contributed during World War II, Howard said. The Port of Benton’s USS Triton sail and conning tower located in a north Richland park are a unique remnant of that era and reminder of the area’s participation during the war.
A few miles west of the Triton park is the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and B Reactor tour headquarters, which is tucked between a local brewery and restaurant. And east of that is Washington State University Tri-Cities’ Hanford History Project, which houses dozens of the artifacts that positioned the Tri-Cities as home to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The port is remodeling a portion of its building across from the USS Triton Sail Park to provide 20,000 square feet where it can consolidate the assets and promote the region’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) history. The building is west of the port’s administrative offices.
“Much of the items are even too big for the Reach (Museum) to display and this will provide for the archiving and interpretation of it. These assets need a more permanent home,” Howard said. “We will also have a visitor’s kiosk that will direct them to LIGO and the Reach.”
LIGO, for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, is the Nobel Prize-winning lab network that contributed to the confirmation of gravity waves. A visitors’ center will open in 2022.
Howard said one of the port’s goals is to support Visit Tri-Cities’ STEM tourism initiatives at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, WSU Tri-Cities’ Hanford History Project and the Triton park to help diversify the Mid-Columbia’s economy while preserving its unique history.
The center also will become the headquarters for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and B Reactor tours.
Howard said the port continues developing the 1,341-acre site the U.S. Department of Energy transferred to the port in 2016.
The North Horn Rapids area is being marketed to draw manufacturing, energy and other industrial development.
It will offer industrial lots of 200 to 500 acres, which aren’t readily available anywhere else in the Tri-Cities.
The property is north of Horn Rapids Road between Kingsgate Road and Stevens Drive.
The port and the city of Richland own adjacent portions of the site and are collaborating on site planning and infrastructure for the property.
In April 2017, J-U-B Engineers, a consultant based in the Tri-Cities, completed a master plan for the site, laying out roads and utilities to maximize the size of the lots, and studied how increased demand from the development might affect water, sewer, gas and transportation in the area.
The property will be used to attract businesses that need 200 to 500 acres for clean manufacturing, food processing, energy and bioscience and more.
Mandy Wallner, marketing specialist for Richland’s economic development office, said the purpose is simple – to create good, living-wage jobs in the Mid-Columbia.
The port signed a deal with WSU Tri-Cities to house wine and culinary programs at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, salvaging what had been a challenging situation at the building, which was built to showcase the region’s wine industry.
The nonprofit that operated Walter Clore ceased in 2020, citing pandemic pressures and competition from private tasting rooms.
WSU Tri-Cities signed a one-year lease with options to renew.
Howard said despite the uncertain economy, the port has seen continued interest in its properties. Its new building at Vintners Village in Prosser is completely leased.
The port completed construction of the 9,000-square-foot building at 236 Port Ave. in 2018.
The Wautoma Springs and Domanico Cellars wineries and a gift shop, Sister to Sister on the Ave., have joined more than a dozen other wineries, a bed and breakfast and other retail businesses to offer a stroll-able cluster of locally-owned retail shops to draw visitors to the area.
In Benton City, the port recently sold its property at 721 Ninth St., which has opened as L&G Salon. It is negotiating the sale of 713 Ninth St., the city’s former fire station, to a private party.
“We are still seeing a lot of demand and interest (for commercial properties),” Howard said. “The Port of Benton has a good diversity of land, and it’s not just focused in one area.”
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to create challenges that have caused delays throughout the construction industry.
It can be difficult to obtain essential materials, such as wood and steel. When they are available, the prices have risen significantly. Howard said port staff is doing the best it can with the resources available to stimulate and boost the local economy and employment in the area.
“With the supply chain, it can be hit or miss,” she said. “We thought Covid would have subsided, and to see things going backward is frustrating and disheartening.”
But the port remains focused on continuing infrastructure projects so when industry comes calling, sites will be ready.
“We’ve done a lot of investment at both the Richland and Prosser airports,” Howard said.
That includes several new areas for hangars at the Prosser airport and completing a new master plan for the Richland Airport, which will provide an overall guide for commercial development at the airports over the next 15 to 20 years.
Howard said the port is seeking grants to help pay for the projects. It recently secured a $3.2 million FAA grant to update electrical, lighting and guidance systems at the Richland Airport.
“We are going after grants all over the place to invest in both airports and in rail,” she said.
At the same time, port staff are making sure to take care of their existing buildings and assets and to advocate for the community and its business interests.
“We are ensuring they are ready to go once we understand what they world looks like post-Covid,” she said.
The port continues to try to insulate the local economy from Covid impacts, while taking precautions to protect staff and visitors, as well.
“My No. 1 priority is my team,” Howard said. “Keeping them safe and following protocols, like masking in the office and deep cleanings of office spaces, to make sure they are OK.”
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