DAYTON - The threat of rain sent the Blue Mountain Station groundbreaking ceremony inside the Harvest Christian Church on Friday, but it didn't dampen enthusiasm for the project.
Two bags of peat moss spread on a painter's canvas tarp substituted for the soil in the field across Wagon Road, where by the end of the month a contractor will begin installing sewer and water lines, roads and a parking lot.
Local dignitaries joined with state officials, including the governor, in praising what may be the world's first natural and organic specialty food park.
The Port of Columbia owns the project, and Port Manager Jennie Dickinson said when consultants came back with the food park idea after a feasibility study three years ago, "It was a great idea. It still is a great idea."
Part of the vision is to reinvent the prosperous resource-based community Dayton was 100 years ago, Dickinson said. Then, Dayton was a booming community with a brewery, malt processing plant and sawmills. In the 1930s the Blue Mountain Cannery moved in, bringing more jobs.
But around the time the cannery came, agriculture became mechanized, and fewer workers were required. People moved to the cities, and during the last half of the 20th century, Dayton was on the path of many other rural towns with agriculture-based economies.
A revitalization effort in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a community proud of its heritage and its history, but with the closing of the Seneca processing plant (formerly Blue Mountain Cannery,) many community supporters felt like they'd been hit in the gut.
Dickinson, who was then director of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, was not one of those gasping for breath. She pointed to the businesses that were still operating, and the number of employees in those businesses still drawing paychecks.
The wind turbine projects brought an economic shot in the arm, with well-paying jobs, and a value that doubled the county's tax base.
But that was not enough in Dickinson's mind. The area needed to capitalize on agriculture, and with the help of consultants, and the support of the Port board of commissioners, the idea of the Blue Mountain Station evolved.
On Friday, Dickinson painted a picture of a lively industrial park, filled with people coming to work every day in businesses producing apple chips, cheese, tortillas, cereal breakfast foods, flour and other value-based products.
The vision includes the site as a tourist destination, bringing people to observe, learn and buy local products.
"If we don't try we will never know," Dickinson said.
State Department of Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse is confident the venture will be successful.
"This is exactly what the governor has in mind for communities across the state," he told the crowd of about 80 people.
He praised the tourism aspect of the Blue Mountain Station.
"This project will help reconnect people with this (agriculture) industry. People want to know where their food comes from. They want to look the grower in the eye," he said.
Along with praise he cited some challenges the project will encounter, particularly in getting further financial help from state agencies. While the state Department of Commerce is struggling with budget cuts, the Department of Agriculture may be able to pick up some of the slack.
"We're committed to helping," he said.
The Community Economic Revitalization Board, a state agency, funded purchase of the 28-plus acre site. CERB offered the Port a $1 million financial package plus matching funds. CERB also provided $50,000 for a feasibility study, matched by $30,000 from the community.
Palouse Mayor Michael Echanove, a member of the CERB board, recalled that in 2009 when a Port delegation came to the CERB board to present the Blue Mountain Station idea, the board was impressed by the preparation that had gone into the project.
"Don't settle for anything less than the best because everyone is watching you," Echanove said.
The CERB board has $149 million committed for projects in the next two years, and will be able to fund economic revitalization projects.
"We finance dreams. We finance hope. And we finance the future," Echanove said.
A congratulatory letter from Gov. Christine Gregoire was read, and Dayton Mayor Craig George and Columbia County Commissioner Dwight Robanske added their words of support.
"This is a great day for the community," George said.