French fries, nuclear waste, pot and Uber topped 2017’s business news

The Port of Pasco unveileed its $42 million terminal expansion and upgrade at the Tri-Cities Airport. It is still attempting to secure a a direct, daily flight to Los Angeles International Airport.
The Port of Pasco unveileed its $42 million terminal expansion and upgrade at the Tri-Cities Airport. It is still attempting to secure a a direct, daily flight to Los Angeles International Airport. Tri-City Herald

There were few major business announcements in the Mid-Columbia in 2017. Instead, the year’s economic news grew from seeds planted a year or more earlier.

Lamb Weston Holdings and AutoZone debuted major facilities. Uber, the ride-hailing service, completed its Tri-City invasion by launching service in Pasco in 2017’s waning days.

The Department of Energy began the process to award billions in Hanford contracts, and Benton County wrestled with the unintended consequences of legal cannabis.

Here’s an unranked look at the business stories that helped shape the Tri-City economy in 2017.

Lamb Weston doubles down

Lamb Weston Holdings, based in the Boise suburb of Eagle, completed a $200 million expansion of its french fry production line in Richland in October.

The new plant added 150 workers to the company’s local payroll and formally opened at a VIP reception.

Lamb Weston Richland
Lamb Weston Holding Co. celebrated its $200 million french fry processing line in Richland in October. Two months later, it said it will duplicate the investment in Hermiston. File Tri-City Herald

As if that weren’t enough, the company doubled down in the Mid-Columbia.

In December, it announced it would spand $250 million to expand its Hermiston facilities, modeling the expansion on Richland.

In 2014, the company expanded its Boardman potato processing plant by 192,000 square feet, a $200 million undertaking.

Collectively, the company’s capital investment in Oregon and Washington is well above a half-billion dollars.

What’s behind all the spending? Global demand for good ol’ American french fries.

Lamb Weston’s former parent, ConAgra Foods, has cited data showing demand for frozen potato products will grow by 2.6 billion pounds by 2020.

That’s good news for local agriculture and jobs.

The company has 4,500 employees in the Mid-Columbia and about 2,500 in the Tri-Cities, making it one of the area’s largest private employers.

In not entirely unrelated news, Preferred Freezer Services, which handles Lamb Weston products, announced it will expand its Richland facility and closed on the purchase of land at Horn Rapids from the city of Richland.

DOE moves to award billions for Hanford work

DOE began releasing information about its plans to award billions of dollars of new contracts at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The Mission Support Alliance contract for sitewide services expires in May 2019.

DOE issued a draft request for bids in November for work valued at up to $4 billion over a decade.

tank farm photo
Workers are covered head to toe in protective clothing and gear at the Hanford nuclear reservation tank farms, even when the heat soars to 107 degrees. Washington River Protection Solutions

Then, the department issued a draft request for bids for an occupational medicine contract valued at $120 million in December.

The current contract expires in September 2019.

It also put out a request for information from companies interested in the management and services contract for the Hanford 222-S Laboratory. Its estimated value is about $45 million over five years.

The current contract held by Wastren Advantage expires in September 2020.

There’s been no announcement on two key environmental cleanup contracts set to expire September 2018. Washington River Protection Solutions is the Hanford tank farm contractor, and CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. is responsible for most of the rest of environmental cleanup at Hanford.

Together, the current 10-year contracts for the work are valued at about $11.6 billion.

DOE appears likely to offer short-term contract extensions, as time runs short to get the two new cleanup contracts in place.

Uber completes its Tri-City invasion

The San Francisco-based ride hailing company entered the local market in 2016.

It was a rocky beginning.

The city of Kennewick initially refused to let Uber conduct background checks on its drivers.

Uber launched in Pasco in December. The San Francisco app-based ride hailing service now operates in all of the Tri-Cities.

It eventually relented and most of its fellow governments followed suit. Since early 2017, Uber drivers have prowled most of the area.

Pasco was the notable exception. The city that’s home to the region’s airport entered a months-long standoff over fingerprint checks for drivers.

Pasco changed its stance in late 2017. Uber followed up by securing a master business license.

Uber debuted Pasco service on Dec. 28, plugging the remaining gaps in service.

Tri-Cities Airport is ready for its close-up

A $42 million remodel and expansion transformed the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Pasco into a showstopper for travelers. The Port of Pasco unveiled the results in January before a crowd that included U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

The project is a major upgrade for travelers, who can now cool their heels before, and if they want, after flights in a modern terminal. Behind the scenes, the security, baggage handling and other operations have been updated to streamline operations.

The Federal Aviation Administration kicked in $20 million for the project.

airport grip shot rgb
The final ribbon cutting for the Tri-Cities Airport took place in January 2017. The project took two-and-a-half years to complete. Port of Pasco

The port financed the balance with bonds backed by airport user fees.

While the pretty new terminal presents a friendlier face to visitors, it hasn’t fulfilled one of its prime objectives.

The Port of Pasco has not yet convinced an airline to offer daily service to Los Angeles International Airport.

The community received a $750,000 Community Air Service Development Grant to support the effort, which acknowledges that around 150 people travel to Los Angeles from the Tri-Cities each day.

Officials have met with the airlines serving Pasco. Those officials say there is interest in the plan, but no airline has committed to establishing a new flight.

Allegiant Airlines offers seasonal service catering to leisure fliers.

Franklin County’s Ron Reimann dies in car collision

Ron Reimann, president of the Port of Pasco Commission, a prominent Franklin County farmer and passionate advocate for Columbia Basin water rights, died in July when his farm vehicle was struck by a van on McClenny Road, near his T & R Farms.

Reimann, 74, was riding a quad-style vehicle when he was struck from behind by a van driven by a local resident. He died at the scene.

Ron Reimann
Ron Reimann, president of the Port of Pasco board of commissioners and a prominent Franklin County farmer, died when his farm vehicle was struck by a van near his T&R Farms. File Tri-City Herald

Reimann and his wife, Rella, were honored earlier in the year at the Oregon/Washington Potato Conference with teh 2017 Industry leadership Award.

Reimann was running for another term on the port commission when he died. His seat has since been filled by Vicki Gordon.

AutoZone touches down

The Memphis, Tenn.-based auto parts giant celebrated construction of its ninth U.S. distribution center with a ribbon cutting ceremony in November.

The center is a a $50 million, 443,819-square-foot giant at Pasco’s King City Truck Stop.

The distribution warehouse will add more than 200 jobs to the local economy, representing an annual payroll of about $10 million at full operation.

The store supports 235 AutoZone stores in seven states.

The state of Washington supported the project with $200,000 for planning and technical assistance, as well as a sales tax exemption on the cost of construction worth an estimated $2.6 million.

Vista Field redevelopment

If you threw a dart at a map of the Tri-Cities, the former Vista Field in Kennewick would be the bullseye, more or less.

There are no physical changes at the 103-acre air field since it shut down to aircraft at the end of 2013.

But 2017 has been a big year for advancing a vision that could transform it into a proper downtown for the Tri-Cities.

The Port of Kennewick, which owns the property, and the city of Kennewick signed off on a master plan as well as development agreement.

Vista Field
The Port of Kennewick and city of Kennewick approved master plan and development agreement that sets the stagbe to develop the former Vista Field, near the Three Rivers Convention Center. File Tri-City Herald

The partners upended the city’s usual zoning requirements to accommodate a vision of a mixed-use development that blends housing, offices, retail and other uses in an urban setting. If successful, it could form a downtown of sorts for a region lacking a cohesive center.

In March, the Arts Center Task Force signed a letter of intent to purchase land in the heart of the project for its Vista Arts Center project, making the nonprofit the first private partner to commit to the vision.

If all goes according to plan, the port will apply for permits to proceed with the first phase of infrastructure development in the spring, with construction beginning next September.

Private developers could begin working at Vista Field the following April.

At full development, the project will have around 1,100 private residences and 750,000 square feet of commercial space for retail, restaurants, professional services and offices.

Pot store ignites West Richland’s ire

A legal cannabis seller’s move to open a store just outside of West Richland infuriated neighbors and brought the challenges of implementing Initiative 502 to a head in Benton County.

West Richland pot
West Richland residents sign a petition to keep a legal cannabis store from opening just outside the city limites. File Tri-City Herald

The Garden, operating as Nirvana Cannabis Co., acquired a former home and riding ring on Arena Road, in an unincorporeated Benton County island flanking West Richland.

A residential neighborhood sits nearby, as does a church and strip mall containing a preschool.

The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board approved Nirvana’s request to transfer its license to Arena Road.

The ensuing uproar prompted the Benton County Commission to join Franklin County and the cities of Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and West Richland in banning cannabis retail in its jurisdiction.

The moratorium affects future businesses, but not Nirvana, which neighbors have vowed to continue to fight.

The county followed up with a ban on cannabis production and processing as well.

Kennewick rejects The Link, put Tri-City Americans at risk

In November, 56 percent of Kennewick voters said no to a sales tax increase that would have expanded the Three Rivers Convention Center, installed a Broadway-style theater at the complex and modernized Toyota Center, home to the Tri-City Americans hockey franchise.

Tri-City Americans
Bob Tory, beneral manager of the Tri-City Americans, said the hockey franchise was counting on a remodel of the Toyota Center to comply with league requirements for player safety and fan amenities. File Tri-City Herald

It was the third, and apparently final, attempt to convince local voters to support a $45 million package of projects with a sales tax that would have added two cents to most $10 purchases in Kennewick.

The failure put the Americans’ future in Kennewick on thin ice, as it were.

The team and Toyota Center face a September 2019 deadline to comply with new Western Hockey League requirements concerning player safety and fan amenities.

Toyota Center is arguably the worst arena in the league, said Bob Tory, co-owner and general manager of the Americans.

After the measure failed in November, WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said the league needs an action plan to bring the city-owned arena into compliance.

“Let’s hope we can find a solution,” he told the Herald. “We certainly want to keep them there. That’s our objective.”

Visit Tri-Cities’ Kris Watkins to retire

One of the region’s biggest cheerleaders announced she’ll retire in 2018.

Kris Watkins
Kris Watkins, president and CEO of Visit Tri-Cities, announced she will retire in 2018. Rich Breshears

Kris Watkins, president of Visit Tri-Cities, announced plans to leave the tourism agency she’s led for 24 years during its annual meeting in November.

Watkins is the former project manager for the Canyon Lakes development who fell in love with tourism during her development career.

The tourism bureau is paid for by membership fees and lodging taxes. It promotes the region to tourists, meeting planners and sports tournament organizers. Its latest initiative aims to brand the Tri-Cities as a top destination for science tourism, building on its Manhattan Project roots.

Tourism was worth more than $444 million in economic activity in 2016 and supports more than 6,000 local jobs. Visit Tri-Cities is conducting a national search for her successor.

Richland cigar store owner caught up in Vegas shooting

Rick Ornstein thought he was lucky when his business, The Educated Cigar & Wine, was invited to set up shop at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas in October.

Rick Ornstein
Richland businessman Rick Ornstein , owner of The Educated Cigar, was working at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival when a gunman opened fire in Las Vegas. File Tri-City Herald

Instead, the unthinkable happened. Stephen Paddock, 64, fired on the crowds from the 32th floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel. Ornstein initially thought fireworks were going off early. A companion, a combat veteran of Korean and Vietnam, knew better.

“This is real live machine gun fire,” the vet told Ornstein. When the shooting stopped, Paddock had killed 58 people and injured 546.

Ornstein and his crew survived by staying put, listening to the sound of gunfire and looking for a safe escape route.

Ornstein managed to make it home to Richland a few days later, but estimated that more than half the inventory of his cigar store was sitting in Las Vegas.

Did I miss your favorite business story of the year? Add it to the comments below.

Reporter Annette Cary contributed to this story.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell