Progress on land transfer major cause for optimism

It will likely take a few more years before the Department of Energy and the Tri-City Development Council can complete the transfer of 1,341 acres north of Richland.

But it's not too early to express a little optimism.

DOE's recent letter, informing TRIDEC that the government intends to pursue the transfer, marks a major milestone worth celebrating.

The Energy Department had been cool toward selling surplus property at Hanford, expressing a preference for long-term leases on land set aside for industrial use.

That struck us as an unreasonable approach. After all, Hanford Comprehensive Land Use Plan calls for most of the 586-square-mile site to be preserved. Just 10 percent of the land is planned for industrial use.

Economic development officials described DOE's reluctance to transfer ownership of the land as an obstacle -- perhaps insurmountable -- to attracting the sort of investors who could bring new jobs to the Mid-Columbia.

Even with that obstacle cleared, plenty of complications remain. However, with DOE on board, there's no reason to doubt the property will eventually come available for development.

DOE has said it is ready to start working on a required environmental study, which would include a chance for public comment, and performing analyses required by the National Historic Preservation Act.

It also is prepared to obtain agreement on the land transfer from Hanford's regulators, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology.

That's good news for a Mid-Columbia economy that's facing the loss of more than 3,000 cleanup jobs at Hanford this year, and the certainty of more layoffs down the road.

TRIDEC and its partners are proposing dividing the land into a 900-acre site, which could support one or two large enterprises providing 2,000 to 3,000 jobs combined. In addition three smaller 100- to 200-acre sites would support an additional 400 to 500 jobs combined.

TRIDEC has already received queries from prospective developers, but hasn't released any details.

It's not surprising the land is attracting some attention. The property, which borders Horn Rapids Road on the south and Stevens Drive on the east, has some unique assets that make it attractive to industrial firms looking to expand or relocate.

It's not easy to find more than 1,000 contiguous acres near major urban center that are ready for development. Couple that with the Mid-Columbia's transportation system, a well-educated work force and enviable quality of life, and it adds up to a highly marketable piece of real estate.

Throw in a bargain-basement sales price, and our optimism about industrial development on the property seems easily justified.

TRIDEC will have to reimburse DOE for all the costs associated with the land transfer. Given the legal work required, including environmental studies on the potential impact of development, the amount will be substantial -- up to $1 million or more.

But TRIDEC is certain to recoup its costs when a final buyer is found. The agency's board of directors has already made it clear that the plan is to break even, keeping the costs to a prospective developer as low as possible.

It's a bit of a misconception to think of the transfer as a TRIDEC project. It is the lead agency, largely because it is a Community Reuse Organization, a government designation that gives it the authority to facilitate the transfer of federal property for economic development.

TRIDEC has acted in that capacity since 1994, frequently putting surplus Hanford equipment in the hands of private companies willing to use it to fuel the Northwest's economy.

This land transfer is clearly on a bigger scale, but the structure for transferring property is pretty much the same.

It's also important to note that in this case, the Port of Benton, city of Richland and Benton County are partners with TRIDEC on the request for the land transfer.

The path from here to industrial development at the site has yet to be plotted, but any of TRIDEC's partners may end up in possession of the land.

Unlike TRIDEC, the port, county or city could add streets, sewer, water and other infrastructure that would make the land more attractive.

It's an option that has worked well in the past. About 7,000 acres of surplus Hanford land has been transferred to the port and city for economic development.

Those two entities spent about $20 million on improvements, and the land is now valued at around $260 million, said Gary Petersen, vice president of Hanford programs for TRIDEC.

Not a bad return.