A year ago, the Sunnyside business community faced a tough blow when the local chamber of commerce disbanded after failing to pay federal taxes for several years.
These days, city and business officials have something to cheer about: Yakima County’s second-largest city has been racking up economic development successes that will translate into tens of millions of dollars of new investment and hundreds of new jobs over the next several years.
They include a new $120 million hospital facility for Sunnyside Community Hospital, a $25 million plant from Olympia-based Ostrom’s Mushroom Farms that would bring 200 new jobs when it’s completed in 2019, and the recent purchase by Darigold, the Seattle-based dairy cooperative, of 26 acres next to its plant at 400 Alexander Road for future expansion.
These new developments have helped the city of more than 16,000 residents better position itself as a major business center for Yakima County.
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“I think Sunnyside is embracing our role as a leader in the Lower Valley,” said Mayor James A. Restucci.
Just about all these developments are tied to efforts by the Port of Sunnyside.
While the city of Sunnyside is involved with economic development, there’s no doubt the port plays a major role.
“The Port of Sunnyside is our largest landowner,” Restucci said. “They have the most available real estate.”
Indeed, the port owns about 560 acres of land, including 160 acres ready for new development, said Jay Hester, the port’s executive director.
Darigold’s recent purchase was of property owned by the Port of Sunnyside. Ostrom’s Mushroom Farms will locate its new facility on property it will purchase from the port.
Like other port districts, the agency’s efforts are funded by a designated tax on the city’s citizens. That revenue — along with a number of state and federal loans and grants — has helped the port make sizable investments in property and other crucial items, including millions of dollars in upgrades to its industrial wastewater plant, which provides a designated wastewater source for industrial use separate from the city’s sewer system.
This wastewater plant has been a key draw for Darigold and Ostrom’s Mushroom Farm.
“They were truly long-term investments that came to fruition,” Hester said.
Scott Burleson, Darigold’s operations senior vice president, outlined other reasons the company continues to do business in Sunnyside. They include proximity to dairy producers in Eastern Washington, a skilled workforce and positive working relationships with local agencies such as the Port of Sunnyside.
Such relationships are vital in the city’s ongoing economic development efforts, Restucci said. Years of monthly meetings with community stakeholders, such as the port and Sunnyside Community Hospital, have been essential in identifying economic development opportunities.
“It’s helped us tremendously to ensure that we’re moving in the same direction,” he said.
But while businesses have found sufficient reason to come to Sunnyside, there’s still more work to do to attract the people who will work for those companies.
Restucci notes that while one of his sons has moved back to Sunnyside, the other has opted to live elsewhere.
“I can’t blame him, because there’s not a lot to do,” he said.
That’s not always the case. A few weeks ago, the Sunnyside Ale Fest, which featured several Washington state breweries, attracted hundreds of attendees. And other events, such as its annual lighted farm implement holiday parade and Cinco de Mayo celebration, are popular draws.
Still, there needs be more to draw people, Restucci said.
The Port of Sunnyside is trying to play a role in that as well: In recent years, it has purchased property that now serves as business incubators. Co Dinn Cellars opened its tasting room and productive facility in one of those buildings.
Another incubator will house Varietal Beer Co. when construction is complete next year.
Chad Roberts, co-owner of Varietal Beer Co., said he and the brewery’s co-owners had planned to start a much smaller brewery part-time and grow as funds became available. But when the Port purchased the former Sunnyside Liquor Store and agreed to renovate the space for the brewery, that allowed the brewery to speed up its development.
Such efforts aren’t only about bringing new businesses to town, but also providing something in high demand by new and current residents.
“Metropolitan areas, whether it’s Seattle, Los Angeles or Portland, continue to grow at a quicker rate than rural areas,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Yakima County Development Association, the county’s economic development arm.
“The things the Port (of Sunnyside) are doing are bringing some of the amenities and the type of businesses you see in a larger community.”
The city now needs to figure out a way to market these new offerings, Restucci said. “I think we have to come up with our identity. That’s the one thing Sunnyside has been lacking for a long time.”
Roberts believes Sunnyside — where he spent many years as a brewer for Snipes Mountain Brewing Co. — could over time serve as a convenient business cluster for breweries, wineries and other craft beverage businesses. He notes the city is centrally located to Yakima and the Tri-Cities.
In the meantime, Roberts believes the arrival of his brewery — along with the tasting rooms of Co Dinn Cellars and Cote Bonneville — is a good start.
Sunnyside “is a long way off from having seven breweries,” Roberts said, referring to the higher number of breweries in Yakima. “But I think having two is a reason to pull off the road and see Sunnyside.”