PROSSER -- Legislators from the 16th and 8th districts savored scenery and wines Monday during a half-day tour of Benton County's premium grape-growing region along the Yakima River.
"This is the most wine-saturated district in the state," said 16th District Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, who was one of about 40 people on the bus tour of Prosser, Benton City and Red Mountain.
Walsh said it was her first chance to see a part of the county recently brought into her district through last year's redistricting effort.
"It's my new territory now," she said, noting that she needs to be familiar with the issues and needs of people in Prosser, Benton City and West Richland.
The tour, organized by Benton County Commissioner Leo Bowman, gave 16th District Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, and 8th District legislators Sen. Jerome Delvin and Rep. Larry Haler, both Republicans from Richland, up-close visits to the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area and other wine-producing areas in the county.
The redistricting means Hewitt now represents a district that has more wineries and acres in grape production that anywhere in the state.
"I now need to make sure we don't have regulations that could be an impediment to growing this industry," he said.
Haler said the tour not only gave him his first visit to the Walter P. Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, but it also helped people on the tour see the progress that has been made in recent years. He and Hewitt helped raise money for the Clore center, which they had not visited until Monday.
"The vision from here is excellent," Haler said while scanning open fields to the north across the Yakima River and a winery with grapes growing next door.
"We now have a quality of wines and winemakers that can make us the new Napa Valley of the north," he said.
The tour also provided updates about the Benton City interchange at the junction of highways 225 and 224 with Interstate 82 and for the proposed $25 million Red Mountain interchange that would provide more direct access to Benton City, West Richland and the Red Mountain AVA.
Don Whitehouse, the Yakima region director for the state Department of Transportation, told the touring group that both projects were poised to go ahead once construction money becomes available.
Whitehouse told Mayor Lloyd Carnahan and city officials at a stop in Benton City the interchange needs $3 million.
"We have preliminary designs for the roundabout. It is the right solution, and we're just waiting to get it funded," he said.
Carnahan and Randy Rutledge of the Benton City Economic Development Committee said the interchange will ease congestion at the bottleneck of converging highways, and is critical for access to 212 acres south of I-82 where Department of Natural Resources land has potential for light industrial development and job creation.
Rutledge said the city needs the land but has been stymied in negotiating with the department.
"We need it. It's our future," he said.
"The city has spent $800,000 to get infrastructure up there. Now we're hoping to get something out of it," Carnahan said.
Walsh, who is Benton City's new representative, said she was interested in helping.
The tour ended at Kiona Vineyards Winery on Red Mountain, where the legislators mingled socially for two hours with representatives from the Kennewick Irrigation District, Port of Benton, Port of Kennewick, Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau and Benton Rural Electric Association.
Ben Franklin Transit provided the tour bus for the day.
-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org