Ten years ago, the Southridge area was an empty landscape, an unimpressive back door to Kennewick.
Northbound motorists had three landmarks to interrupt the monotony of Highway 395 and Interstate 82.
The first was the isolated outpost of the Washington State Patrol, cueing drivers to slow to 55 mph.
Then the Southridge High School campus sat to the west across amid acres of dry, wind-weathered grass.
Finally, the towering Walmart sign at 27th Avenue, signaling to motorists the necessities of a traveler's life were almost within reach: fuel, food and motels.
But all that is changing, with more on the way soon.
Today, a masonry sign, "Welcome to Kennewick, Washington Wine Country," serves as the city's southern gateway greeting.
The 9/11 Memorial stands as a sentry and symbol of community pride at the edge of the city, and a sports complex with pavilion show passers-by that Kennewick has more to offer than strip malls and stoplights.
With plans for hundreds of new homes, apartments, a commercial district, retail and upscale restaurants, a multimillion-dollar sports complex and a community hospital, Southridge is on the grow.
"It is our future," said Mayor Steve Young.
The city is plowing $13.6 million into the earth: building roads and installing water and sewer lines to ensure that Southridge will attract investors, businesses and people.
This summer will see Southridge spring to life with baseball and softball tournaments, as well as soccer matches at the newly opened municipal fields. On Thursday, a $3.2 million pavilion officially opens its doors to indoor sports and other events.
Also this year, major road construction is planned for Southridge Boulevard, Ridgeline Drive and Hildebrand Boulevard, including two new roundabouts.
Developer Matt Smith of Bend, Ore., is pushing ahead on the second phase of homes in Sagecrest, with a third phase planned. And developers Milo Bauder and Robert Young have started earthwork for their residential project west of Sherman Street and north of 36th Avenue.
Commercial developer Dean Maldonado has 200 acres of commercial property at Southridge, with deals already secured with Taco Bell and Comfort Suites.
"We've got $1.8 million under contract, just waiting for the hospital to go," he said.
Maldonado also has 41 acres of residential land across from Southridge High poised for development this summer. The preliminary plat application is for 50 homes.
A long time coming
The Southridge vision is an echo of what Kennewick's city leaders were saying six decades ago.
"Growth of Kennewick Since Origin Has Been Astounding," read a headline in the Tri-City Herald in February 1950.
Then, Kennewick's 12,000 residents reflected phenomenal growth, having bloomed from a town of less than 2,000 people in 1918.
Post-war prosperity and optimism prompted the chamber of commerce to boast in 1950 that the fledgling city offered home-seekers and investors "the brightest prospects of any city of comparable size in the nation."
The chamber also promoted the city as having "a temperate climate, ideal community life and unbounded opportunities." Those themes continue to be sung by the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.
Jim Beaver, Kennewick's mayor for 12 years, said his grandfather used to take him to a hill where Southridge is today and point to the empty fields to the north and west.
Where the young man saw nothing in particular, the elder Beaver envisioned rooftops "as far as the eye could see."
What Beaver's grandfather saw then is what current leaders see coming soon.
The 2,500 acres in the current Southridge Subarea Plan call for developing 7,200 new homes on 1,360 acres with about 200 acres of commercial property.
"Cities grow, they just do," said Bob Spaulding, the eight-year chairman of Kennewick's planning commission.
"Early on, we were talking about Southridge being a super center for commercial and retail," Spaulding said.
The idea was to have a planned community called Southridge Village.
City staff began talking a decade ago with property owners on how to design a community where people could work, live and play in close proximity.
But the city had a full to-do list that included deciding the future of Vista Field, building a $19 million convention center, taking on an antique carousel project, extending Steptoe Street, revitalizing downtown and developing Columbia Park.
Young, who was on the planning commission and the Kennewick General Hospital Foundation board at the time, said the city simply had too much going on and nothing was getting finished.
"The council was out of funds, and there were other priorities," said Young, who was appointed to the council in 2010.
With the change in city leadership, which included a new city manager, planning director, mayor and three new council members, came a shift in priorities.
Young, who had become mayor, said the focus was to start getting projects done, beginning with Southridge.
"We wanted to make it more than a sports complex, but a mixed-use area with a new Kennewick General Hospital and retail," Young said.
When Kennewick qualified for local revitalization money from the state, the council knew it had a means to build the Southridge dream.
"Economics is what is driving Southridge now," said Spaulding.
Steve Young agrees. "There can be no other future for the city than to grow south," he said.
City growth was hemmed in by the Columbia River on the north and Richland to the west. And on the east side is a cobbled mix of land uses and rural county roads that would make growth difficult.
Southridge's untouched landscape offers a blank slate for the new vision of "retail, restaurants and rooftops to support it," said Jeff Kossow, the city's economic director.
He receives two to three calls a week from developers interested in Southridge.
"They see Kennewick as the most progressive community in the region, hearing that development is welcome here. We are not ag, and we are not research- and service-oriented. Our leaders are looking to growth, not to stifle it," Kossow said.
Planning Director Greg McCormick said cities such as Kennewick, which don't have a well-established and recognized downtown area, typically have "nodes of activity."
In Kennewick, that would include the original downtown and Columbia Drive, Columbia Center mall and areas along Clearwater Avenue and at 27th Avenue and Highway 395.
"Land-use patterns change over time," he said. And as Southridge develops, jobs will follow.
"It will take time, but things will change. I can see a spin-off with medical facilities," he said, based on the new Kennewick General Hospital building planned for there.
The first to arrive
Vonda and Greg Smith, owners of Z Place on Zintel Place, chose to build their salon and spa in the Southridge area in December 2010, believing it was where Kennewick's next big growth spurt would be.
"At first, it was a little scary being way out here in the tumbleweeds," Vonda Smith said.
It was one of the first businesses to take hold in the Southridge area. Vonda Smith said being right off Highway 395 and not far from the Canyon Lakes housing community has been a boon for her business that had been on Clearwater Avenue for almost 23 years.
"As soon as the hospital goes up, this area will grow like crazy," she said.
On the west side of Highway 395, the Meadow Hills Veterinary Clinic opened in the fall of 2009. Veterinarians Susan Thorson and Janine Swailes selected Southridge for their second Tri-City clinic based on the city's plan that predicted 7,200 homes eventually would be built there.
"We wanted a good location where there wasn't another clinic within several miles. And there's no other direction the city could grow," Swailes said.
Six months ago, Perry and Kathy Smith were the first on their block to move into one of the new homes under construction just west of the clinic.
The retired couple have a wide-angle view of Southridge's open spaces from their back deck in the Sagecrest subdivision.
"This seemed to be a good fit for us," said Kathy Smith. They lived 35 years in the Tri-City Heights neighborhood off Canal Drive, deciding to move after their four daughters were raised.
"When we were growing up, people were selling land out here, and we said, 'Who would buy out there? There will never be any houses out there,' " she said. "But now it looks like there will be a lot more houses," she said.
'It is all new business'
Kim Shugart, senior vice president for the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau, believes the development of Southridge will enrich more than just one neighborhood.
"Southridge will have salons, tasting rooms and the sports complex. And the indoor facility is a big plus to the region," Shugart said. "The way they've planned Southridge, we will have more tournaments coming. It is all new business."
One weekend tournament attracting 1,500 people can add $187,000 to the region's economy, she said.
"We are becoming a much more vibrant community, more cosmopolitan. The things we're doing for visitors (at Southridge) provides a much better quality of life for our citizens," Shugart said.
Tim Dalton, executive director for the Historic Downtown Kennewick Partnership, believes developing Southridge will benefit the city as a whole, particularly the downtown.
"More people at Southridge will mean more people downtown, especially as the (Port of Kennewick) develops on Clover Island and along Columbia Drive," he said.
Ann Steiger, owner of Old Roxy Theater Antiques and Gifts in downtown Kennewick, agreed.
"The city has made a huge investment in Southridge. It is part of their overall plan. The downtown and riverfront area is another part of the plan. If we do our work correctly, Southridge will encourage people to our side of Kennewick," she said.
City Manager Marie Mosley said Southridge is a top priority but not the only one. "It doesn't mean the rest of Kennewick isn't important too. This will help sustain the whole community," she said.
Mosley said Southridge is coming together well despite the general economic downturn nationwide.
"We would've liked to see things progress quicker, but it has been difficult for some of these developers to get financing," she said.
What is happening at Southridge reminds mayor Young of what Harold Thompson encountered when people told him no one would buy a home way out where he was developing a golf course community called Canyon Lakes. The successful upscale development sits east of Southridge along Highway 395.
"If you don't have a vision for it, you'll never know if it can happen," Young said.