Critics say it would cost too much and no one would come. CBC defends its $13 million culinary school

Columbia Basin College is fleshing out details for its proposed $13 million Kennewick culinary center as it works to win over skeptics who worry it is too large and would have a hard time recruiting students.
Columbia Basin College is fleshing out details for its proposed $13 million Kennewick culinary center as it works to win over skeptics who worry it is too large and would have a hard time recruiting students. Courtesy Columbia Basin College

Columbia Basin College hopes to build a culinary program even its harshest critics will love.

In coming months, the Tri-City community college will create an advisory committee and take other steps to win over skeptics who panned its proposed $13 million culinary school in an confidential feasibility study last summer.

Skeptics called the proposed school too expensive, unlikely to attract students and said the site at Duffy’s Pond in downtown Kennewick is on “the wrong side of the tracks.”

The Tri-City Herald received a copy at the time under the Washington Public Records Act.

After meeting with industry leaders in October to hash out a vision for the proposed school, CBC President Rebekah Woods told the Herald she’s taking steps to ensure the school is needed, financially viable and a credit to the community.

CBC will creating a standing advisory committee, recruit volunteers to develop a sustainable business plan and recruit a culinary educator to provide it with the in-house expertise it needs to extend its mission to food.

Woods hasn’t decided if CBC will hire a staff member or a consultant. She expects to make a decision in one to two months.

CBC, the Port of Kennewick and the city of Kennewick made a big splash in 2016 when they announced a joint venture to create a culinary school at the port’s Columbia Gardens Urban Wine & Artisan Village project.

Columbia Gardens is a port-led economic development initiative to transform a gritty section of downtown into a wine-themed visitor destination.

Rebekah Woods

Bartholomew Winery, formerly of Seattle, and Palencia/Monarcha Wine Co. of Walla Walla opened at Columbia Gardens this year.

Gordon Estate Winery, Cave B Estate Winery, Swampy’s BBQ and Frost Me Sweet Bakery will move in to the second phase in 2019.

CBC would cement the neighborhood’s hospitality cred with a 20,000-square-foot school serving 120 students on a picturesque site next to Duffy’s Pond, west of the wineries and food truck plaza.

Once littered with junked cars and other debris, Duffy’s pond is a walking destination separated from the Columbia River by a levee and thin strip of land.

CBC’s culinary school would offer certificates as well as two-year associate’s degrees.

But critics who shared their views for the feasibility study note culinary programs are losing students and complained the Kennewick location is too out of the way.

If built, some suggested, it should be on the CBC campus or a more prestigious site, such as Richland’s Columbia Point or Pasco’s Osprey Point.

Columbia Basin College in Pasco. File Tri-City Herald

CBC has not begun to raise money. But it’s keeping its focus on the original vision, which includes the Kennewick site, Woods said.

The college took a step toward soothing naysayers in October. At a half-day session, CBC invited hospitality industry leaders to share what they want in a program.

Woods said her goal is to ensure the program is sustainable and meets a need while serving as a credit to the community.

The feasibility study, conducted by Nilsson Advisory Group, unearthed an inherent tension in the idea of a food-focused education program.

Local restaurateurs see a tool to train workers, noting they have difficulty recruiting and retaining good employees.

On the other hand, culinary programs face declining enrollment. College students are prefering higher paying professions in the tech sector.

“People don’t go to a school to make $20,000-$30,000 per year. They go to school to make $50,000-$80,000 per year,” one commenter said.

Another said bluntly that entry-level workers can be trained on the clock. “No student loans required.”

Woods is optimistic CBC can create a program that is unique and competitive enough to attract students.

The culinary schools that are closing tend to be private and charge higher tuition. Le Cordon Bleu and The New England Culinary Institute in Vermont are prominent examples.

Successful programs tend to be associated with community colleges, which charge far less in tuition. Walla Walla Community College’s Wine Country Culinary Institute is a handy local example and CBC partner.

Despite the skeptic’s misgivings, those who gathered in October support a culinary arts center it helps the Mid-Columbia develop a food scene to match its wine one.

Metro Wine Village Dedication
Locals wait in line to enter Monarcha Winery for a tour and wine sample after the Port of Kennewick held its ribbon cutting for the Columbia Gardens Urban Wine & Artisan Village in February 2018. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Supporters want a school that promotes entrepreneurship as well.

Woods said there is support for training future restaurateurs in the fine art of writing business plans, budgeting and creating financially sustainable businesses.

Finding the money to build a $13 million project remains a chief obstacle.

Of the 88 people who participated in the feasibility study, 33 indicated they would collectively be willing to contribute about $1 million to get the program started.

A full-fledged capital campaign is unlikely to raise more than $3 million, meaning CBC will have to turn to partners, grants and the state for funding.

Woods has no firm deadline to end or start the culinary school. But she notes the process has built-in checks.

The state higher education coordinating board must approve new programs. So to does CBC’s accrediting agency, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

It would also seek approval from the American Culinary Federation, the accrediting agency for culinary programs.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514