Wine fine for Ridgefield port

New policy ained at bolstering industry in north Clark County

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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The Port of Ridgefield is adding the wine industry to its portfolio of economic development projects in hopes of boosting existing wineries and encouraging new ones to crop up.

The port’s three-member Board of Commissioners on Wednesday voted unanimously to bolster its comprehensive development plan with a policy that enables the port to pursue capital projects, marketing efforts and zoning regulations to pump up the wine industry in north Clark County.

The port hasn’t identified specific projects yet. Nor has it set aside money to pay for them. But the policy the port adopted lays the groundwork for those actions to occur.

It also illustrates the continuing effort by the port — a governing and taxing district that encompasses 57 square miles, or 36,480 acres — to shape how north Clark County grows. A study of the wine industry commissioned by the port found Clark County to be “an emerging wine production area” with “close proximity to both the Seattle and Portland markets, which have a combined population of 5.6 million.”

The port’s decision to uncork a wine industry development policy came as good news to Jeremy Brown, owner of Rusty Grape Vineyard in Battle Ground. The more prominent the north Clark County wine industry becomes, he said, the more it will show up on the radar of tourists. And that means every winery wins, since people visit more than one winery when they go on tours, Brown said. “It’s all positive.”

The port became interested in promoting wineries about two years ago, said Randy Mueller, director of business development for the agency. Part of that interest was generated by the fact that other ports in Washington have launched projects and marketing efforts to support wineries.

The Port of Walla Walla, for example, spent roughly $1.7 million to construct five buildings that provide incubator and startup space for new wineries. The bulk of the port’s cost to put up the buildings was covered by state grants. The port charges low lease rates to new tenants, and then gradually increases the rent as wineries become more established. The Port of Walla Walla has five wineries in its incubator, according to the economic development study conducted by BST Associates for the Port of Ridgefield.

Mueller said developing incubator space is one project the Port of Ridgefield could pursue under its new wine industry policy. Other possibilities include spending money on marketing and advertising; creating wine industrial and retail parks; purchasing wine-making equipment; producing local winery maps; and creating special zoning designations to support grape-growing and wine-making.

Mueller said any capital improvements the port would make, such as putting up buildings to house wineries, would have to occur inside its district boundaries. Marketing and advertising efforts, such as taking out magazine ads touting the area’s wineries, could be broader in scope.

The port’s executive director, Brent Grening, has been authorized to take steps to put the new wine policy into action. “We’ve talked about a lot” of different ideas, Mueller said. “We haven’t ruled any out. We haven’t selected any.”

Clark County had an estimated 12 wineries with a production of roughly 15,000 gallons in 2009, according to the BST Associates study. The wineries are clustered around Ridgefield and Battle Ground, with some in the Vancouver area, too.

BST Associates points out that Clark County, particularly its northern region, has a substantial tourism industry that “would enhance and be enhanced by development of the wine industry.” As the study also notes, the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge draws an estimated 165,000 visitors annually.

Port of Ridgefield Commission Chairman Bruce Wiseman said the refuge’s popularity, on its own, is a good reason to help grow the area’s wine industry. “We have the mass of people coming in already,” he said.