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Monday, May. 11, 2009

Benton City using to wine to capitalize on future tourism

BENTON CITY, Wash. -- This small town of 3,000 someday could follow in Walla Walla's footsteps if it finds a way to capitalize on the growing wine industry on Red Mountain.

Whether such a transformation is for good or ill, city officials say, depends on whether it's done on Benton City's terms.

Ryan Pennington of the Washington Wine Commission said Benton City is in a fantastic position to position itself as a tourist destination as Walla Walla already has.

"You're seeing it already," he said of Benton City. "I'm hearing people talk about Bella, the deli they have over there."

Since becoming an American Viticulture Area in 2001, Red Mountain is producing some of the Mid-Columbia's most high-profile grapes and, in turn, wine. Already about a dozen wineries call the area home and plans are being made by a group of winery owners, viticulturists and business people to develop a winery resort, complete with an Italian-style piazza at its center.

To prepare for future growth, the city is hoping to expand its urban growth area by about 1,545 acres. If that proposal is OK'd by the Benton County commissioners this fall, city officials would be able to annex it, nearly doubling the geographic size of Benton City. Along with the acres would come hundreds of residents now living in the unincorporated swath of land east of Benton City between Interstate 82 and Highway 224.

Initial plans call for the urban growth area expansion -- 1,306 acres east of town, 238 to the west -- to include medium- and low-density residential, commercial, manufacturing, light industrial and agriculture zones.

"We're a pretty nice little town, we're centrally located," said Benton City Mayor Lloyd Carnahan, who has lived in the city since 1947. "It does help to have Red Mountain around us and agriculture around us."

What type of businesses would Carnahan like to see?

"I'm not choosy," he said. "I want to see businesses that bring tax revenue."

While economic expansion is inevitable, many people involved in planning the city's future agree that significant growth hinges on Red Mountain's development. One person championing the region's wine and grape potential is Benton County Commissioner Leo Bowman.

"I want to see a thriving AVA on Red Mountain," he said. "I envision the Red Mountain AVA filled with vineyards and wine facilities, which attract tourists and quality-of-life issues."

Scott William's family, which partnered with another family, was the first to plant grapes on Red Mountain in 1975. Now, his family operates the Kiona Vineyards Winery. Williams supports the idea of small-scale development, including a spa, restaurants and piazza, which, he said, may be located on state-owned land that's not in the heart of the growing area.

"The idea is to preserve (Red Mountain) as the world-class wine-growing area that it is," he said.

Since many growers and winery operators don't want to see large-scale development, Williams said, Benton City would be an ideal place for tourists to spend the night after touring Red Mountain during the day.

Bowman thinks Red Mountain's potential will be realized in about 10 years. That's why Bowman is lobbying for the construction of a $25 million Red Mountain interchange that would provide better access to the area and an interstate exit into West Richland.

Bowman said the county has applied for federal funding, but said it could take years to raise the total amount. So far, about $2.4 million has been raised.

Bob Spink, who handles Benton City's engineering needs, is one of the main players charged with preparing for how that growth will be managed in Benton City.

Spink recently covered a table in his Richland office with maps of Benton City. Pointing to the proposed addition to the city's urban growth area, Spink mused how the expansion might affect Benton City.

"... We know growth is going to occur. We know this is an attractive area. We know jobs will be created," he said. "It's real. It's important for the development of the whole vicinity."

Benton City Economic Development Council Coordinator Randy Rutledge also believes one of the keys to the city's growth will be the development of Red Mountain and how city officials prepare for it. The importance of creating an image synonymous with Benton City, he says, is imperative.

"This is a blank canvas out here," Rutledge said. "This is a huge market to grow out of."

Rutledge points to current economic success as a barometer of things to come. In the midst of a nationwide recession, Rutledge said Benton City's sales tax revenue increased 9 percent in 2008. The city also added at least eight new businesses in the last two years, including a restaurant, espresso bar, flower and gift shop, and several light industrial outfits.

"We got a little business growth going on here," Rutledge said excitedly, adding that he has "tire kickers" in his office weekly asking about the area's economic climate.

Still, Rutledge is focused on controlled growth that is tailored to a specific image.

"We've got to look at our buildings," he said. "What kind of look do we want to see?"

The look should capitalize on Red Mountain's future success, Rutledge says, but be able to stand alone in case the American Viticulture Area doesn't turn into a full-blown tourist destination. At the same time, Rutledge also wants to make sure Benton City retains its small-town feel.

"The whole idea is to be ahead of the growth so we still have the rural feel we love," he said. "That is a constant concern, that we don't want to lose the feel of a small, rural community."

Mayor Carnahan agrees. He says Benton City must make sure the needs of the Red Mountain wineries don't drown out the needs of local farmers or city residents. Putting too much focus on Red Mountain, which may or may not become the Mid-Columbia's wine Mecca, could be a risky bet, Carnahan said. Instead, the mayor wants to take a balanced approach to the city's future.

"We've got a lot of possibilities, but you just have to wait and see what pans out," he said.

Before growth becomes possible, city officials will have to wait and see if their proposal to enlarge Benton City's urban growth area pans out. Bowman expects the commission to vote on the issue in September. If it's approved, the city expects opposition.

Seattle-based Futurewise, a statewide public interest group dedicated to preserving farm land, forests and shorelines, appealed the county commissioners' February 2009 approval of West Richland's request to enlarge its urban growth area by 747 acres.

Robert Beattey, a legal director for Futurewise, said cities are only allowed to increase urban growth areas based on how much extra acreage is needed to accommodate 20 years of growth. He said Benton City's request, which would essentially double the geographic size of the city, seems exaggerated and likely would be appealed if approved.

Residents, on the other hand, seem to be supportive of increasing the urban growth area. Carnahan cited a meeting earlier this year attended by about 50 people. He said several residents spoke in favor of the proposal and no one voiced dissent.

City officials agree it could takes years, if not decades, for the city to annex the area that's proposed to be added to Benton City's urban growth area.

In the meantime, Carnahan is content with the city he's called home since he was 10 years old.

"I like the town, it's a very nice town. I've been all over the country and I still think Benton City's the nicest."