Our Voice: Tri-Cities economy diversifying rapidly

While our local economy has consistently been stronger than most, there have always been concerns that we were overly reliant on Hanford cleanup. More than ever, the Tri-Cities appear closer to achieving more economic diversity.

In a recap of the top business stories in 2016, we had lots of good news — some in the form of new business while existing enterprises showed significant growth.

French fry giant Lamb Weston was spun off from its parent company ConAgra. Soon after that happened, the company with annual sales of $3 billion announced a $200 million investment in its operations in Richland for a new french fry line. The company is a powerhouse in our region and employs about 4,000 people in the Mid-Columbia. The new line will add 128 new jobs.

Economic development recruiters had their eye on AutoZone as the Memphis-based company looked to develop new regional distribution centers. King City in Pasco was chosen as one of the new sites. The 443,819-square-foot warehouse will open this year and provide 200 new jobs. AutoZone is a Fortune 500 company and a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Those who frequent the Tri-Cities Airport have had to put up with baggage claim in tents and a maze of tented tunnels as construction continues on the $41.9 million renovation and expansion of the facility. But we’re starting to see results. The new baggage claim and rental car counters are open, and the results of the project are now apparent. The airport has doubled in size and just in time: boardings were up 8 percent over the prior year — which was itself a record year for travelers through Pasco.

Other welcome investments came with the burgeoning wine industry. At the Port of Walla Walla’s site outside Burbank, Railex moved forward with a $10 million expansion of its wine shipping facility. In West Richland, a $3.1 million wine effluent treatment facility can support the production of 2.5 million cases of wine, treating the water before it is returned to the municipal system. The Port of Kennewick began construction on its Columbia Gardens project in Kennewick, announcing its first two winery tenants and a culinary school program with Columbia Basin College. The Port of Benton announced new tasting room developments in Prosser and Richland.

One significant business evolution came when Dave Retter surprised many in November by changing his long-standing business from Windermere Real Estate Tri-Cities, which he formed in 1993, to an affiliation with Sotheby’s.

For the shoppers among us, retail continued to boom with the opening of HomeGoods near the mall and more development at Queensgate, including another Ulta Beauty and a Panera Bread that is under development.

While not all the business news was positive in 2016, we have a lot to be thankful for in the Tri-Cities and surrounding region. Our economy continues to thrive and evolve in the most amazing ways. It’s the kind of economic development that folks could have only dreamed of a decade ago.