By the Herald editorial staff
Do you ever get the feeling some of our elected officials aren't communicating?
That's sure the way Benton County commissioners appeared while wrangling over plans for a new interchange off Interstate 82 near Red Mountain.
On Feb. 1, two commissioners voted to ask the federal government for the full $24 million needed to complete the project. Commissioner Leo Bowman was the dissenting vote in the matter, saying the request should be more reasonable, starting with a $5 million step to get the project off the ground.
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It's troubling to see the board split over plans for something as important as improving access to West Richland and the nearby Red Mountain wineries.
If only that disagreement was the end of the story.
As it turns out, the Benton Rural Electric Association already had been working behind the scenes with other groups and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to secure $5 million to start the project.
Reminded of that effort, the Benton County commissioners rescinded their $24 million request to keep from screwing up plans that already were moving down the pipeline. They replaced it with a $5.5 million request, in line with the Benton REA's efforts.
Several questions come to mind in light of this. First of all, why weren't the commissioners better aware of the work already under way to secure seed money through Murray's office?
Benton County has a big stake in the future of Red Mountain, as do West Richland and the many wineries that operate in the area.
Bowman has been a champion for development of Red Mountain. He already has helped secure infrastructure improvements for the area and is chairman of Red Mountain Vision, a coalition of interests supporting economic development in the area.
According to the committee's website, members include Benton County, Benton REA and most other government agencies and economic development groups with a stake in Red Mountain's future.
One of the coalition's top goals is an I-82 interchange. Improved access to the Red Mountain wine district from a nearby freeway exit is "key to the success of the new tourist and commerce destination."
Jason Robertson, a consultant hired to determine the potential economic benefits, estimated increased tourism at Red Mountain would bring nearly 2,400 jobs, more than $102 million in payroll and $55 million in tax revenues in the near term.
Bowman has long seen the value of the economic potential wineries can bring to Red Mountain. The grapes that come from the area already are some of the most desirable for wine production. New wineries are coming online in the area, and old ones are catching up by building new facilities.
With world-class wine comes tourism and a support industry for wine production, all boons for Benton County and its residents. Bowman has asked his fellow commissioners to support continued contact with our congressional delegation to secure federal stimulus money for the project.
So we don't understand why Commissioners Jim Beaver and Max Benitz didn't listen to Bowman in the first place on the funding request. Bowman obviously was the most informed of the bunch.
Then again, we don't know why Bowman didn't know about Benton REA's work. Or if he did, why he wasn't able to use that knowledge to convince his fellow commissioners before the Feb. 1 vote.
Whatever the back story, the commissioners ended up looking silly on an important matter, having to rescind their already controversial funding request. Projects such as the development of Red Mountain are too important for amateur mistakes.
Economic development is a sophisticated business. You seldom get more than one chance at the kind of high-impact project with worldwide appeal that Red Mountain represents. And it needs to be done correctly.
Red Mountain's advocates list the I-82 interchange as one of four key projects for the area. We agree. Access is vitally important and the interchange is a step toward the future.
We're not sure exactly who failed to complete their homework before the commission's initial vote, but the absence of due diligence is self-evident.
Whatever the case, we hope all stakeholders will become more involved and aware of what's going on at Red Mountain.