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The Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center's 22-acre site stretches along the Yakima River in Prosser, Washington. Plans for the site include a 15,000-square-foot building, parking, outdoor picnic and event area, and a vineyard.

The Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center’s 22-acre site stretches along the Yakima River in Prosser, Washington. Plans for the site include a 15,000-square-foot building, parking, outdoor picnic and event area, and a vineyard.

Picture a building where hundreds of visitors flock every day, sampling regional foods, tasting local wines, attending seminars and classes. Picture such a center humming along on a self-sustaining budget. Now picture another, deep in the throes of bankruptcy, its doors locked and staff ­positions terminated.

Both of those scenarios loom large in the minds of the directors of the proposed Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, Washington. The group of agriculture and economic development leaders is closely studying the New York Wine and Culinary Center, looking for ways to emulate its success, while trying to avoid the missteps that brought down California’s Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts.

The idea of the Clore Center began some 11 years ago as a vision of the city of Prosser’s economic development group.

The original concept called for a 17,000-square-foot building that would house a tasting room and exhibits, with a focus on wine and food sales. Its programs would honor the work of the late Dr. Walter Clore, the Washington State University researcher whose work created the foundation for the Washington wine industry. The early directors got a $2-million-dollar grant from the state of Washington, and began raising the remaining funds for the proposed $12-million building.

But the project never generated enough momentum. The group’s first attempt in 2007 to break ground stalled when they learned that the state wouldn’t distribute its grant until the rest of the money was raised. In the years since, the Washington wine industry began to question the Clore Center’s focus, while the well-documented struggles of the Copia Center in Napa, California, unfolded in the press. Created with a donation of land and $20 million from Robert Mondavi, the $78-million Copia campus featured a tasting room, art displays, and Julia’s Kitchen, a restaurant and tribute to Julia Child.

Demise

Headlines in November 2008 documented Copia’s demise when employees reporting to work found a notice reading “temporarily closed” taped to the locked doors. Today, Copia’s board of directors is working its way through bankruptcy court, searching for a buyer for the shuttered building.

Jack Chapman, co-president of the Clore Center’s board of directors, is confident the Washington venture will avoid that fate. He pointed out that the Clore Center was never modeled after Copia, with its emphasis on art. Still, its original focus on tourism, wine and food sales drew only tepid support from the wine industry, so the board began to rethink the Clore Center’s mission and scope of activities.

In 2008, Dr. Dan Bernardo, dean of Washington State University’s College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resources, and Dr. Robert Stevens, director of WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, joined the board, bringing valuable insights from the scientific community; the group distributed a survey and scheduled the first of several meetings around Washington State to get input from wineries and vineyards; and they began work on a completely revamped business plan.

Chapman and Deb Heintz, economic development director for the city of Prosser and second vice-president of the board, said the new plan will focus on agriculture and the wine business, as well as tourism, with space for meetings, a tasting room, a gift shop, and educational exhibits. “We’re open to revenue-generating activities, but that’s not the main focus,” said Heintz.

The center will host industry meetings and seminars, and classes aimed at consumers on topics like wine tasting, wine and food pairings, and cooking with regional food products. It will also serve as a worker training site, offering classes and certifications in areas requested by the wine industry, like food safety or forklift operation. Other revenue sources will include space rental for events and memberships.

Redesign

The scaled-back plans call for a 15,000-square-foot building costing $7 million. The board has raised about $4 million, and will break ground this summer on the infrastructure, installing parking, lights, and water at the 22-acre site overlooking the Yakima River, just off I-82 in Prosser, making it usable for outdoor events. Construction might also include a gazebo and restrooms. Once the business plan is finalized, the group hopes to be able to put the building redesign on a fast track, with a target construction date in spring of 2010.

“As the infrastructure goes in and the land is used, there will be additional momentum,” Heintz said. “We’re trying to understand the needs of the industry, asking the right questions, and listening to what the industry tells us they want. If we do it right, the programming and the marketing will stimulate business for all these industries.”

Besides trying to avoid Copia’s mistakes, the board is studying the success of the New York Wine and Culinary Center, a 20,000-square-foot, $7.5-million project that opened in 2006. With an annual operating budget of $3 million, the New York Center relies on five income streams, according to Executive Director Alexa Gifford—classes for both consumers and industry, a gift shop, a tasting room, a restaurant, and private events. “The entire organization is focused on educating people about New York agriculture,” she said. It hosts on average between 200 and 300 visitors a day, and three years after opening, is well on its way toward self-sufficiency.

Broader scope

The Clore Center directors have taken some cues from New York, like presenting the broad food-production picture, but aren’t building an identical business plan. Instead of putting all their energy into money-making activities, Heintz said, they’re trying to find the right balance between service to the wine industry and education for the general public, while at the same time working toward a self-sustaining budget.

The most significant change in focus might be the new, broader scope of the center. While maintaining the original purpose of honoring Walter Clore, it also incorporates all eastern Washington agriculture, from wine grapes to apples, cherries and other crops. “We definitely want it to show the role Walter Clore had in the wine industry, and then also to be able to highlight all Washington crops, to tell the whole story,” explained Stevens. “You can’t call it just viticulture and enology because the people who have vineyards also have apple orchards and hops and all sorts of things. We want to be able to have educational displays about the geology of the area, the soils, how important water is. It’s a real opportunity to reach out and touch people who don’t experience eastern Washington agriculture very often. People will come for the wine, but you’ve got a teachable moment when you get them there.”