Wine industry warming to Walla Walla incubator model

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Walla Walla's winery incubators could be a model for a similar concept in Escondido, Calif.

City officials there are working on ways to develop the community as a prominent wine region, and are looking in Walla Walla's direction when it comes to one idea. Specifically the wine incubator program at the Port of Walla Walla's airport industrial park.

In an article posted last weekend in North County Times, a newspaper circulated in north San Diego and southwest Riverside counties, officials said Walla Walla's five-building cluster that first hatched in 2006 may be worth replicating. The concept allows upstart wineries to rent space from the Port so they can focus on creating quality wines without the hefty investment that can come first with acquisition or construction of a building.

Vintners are on a six-year lease that starts at $1,000 per month and climbs to $2,500 by the end of the term. After six years, tenants must vacate. They can also leave sooner if they choose.

The concept was floated around Escondido, a community with about 13 "small" wineries and dozens more amateur winemakers, according to the article.

Officials are also considering an alternative idea to foster a private crush pad with lenient zoning, land and/or empty city buildings, the article explained. One hurdle to replicating Walla Walla's incubators is funding. The Port got support for construction of the local incubators with about $1.4 million in state grants.

Local people interviewed for the California paper's story include winemaker Joel Waite of Cavu Cellars and Paul Gerola, the Port's economic development director.

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Downtown Walla Walla's former Budget Inn has had an identity change.

The 57-room motel at the gateway to downtown Walla Walla, 305 N. Second Ave., is now part of the Americas Best Value Inn franchise.

The operation and services are virtually the same, as is ownership under Mike and J.D. Patel. But the brand itself is different.

The change may be a sign of the times for a growing Americas Best Value Inns. According to the Cleveland-based company's website, it added 127 properties to its system in 2011, a year of expansion that in the company's 12th year was heralded by its 1,000th hotel.

The new inns, hotels and suites included conversions from brands such as Best Western, Days Inn, Ramada, Howard Johnson and many other independent properties and other known brands.

Operating under its "Freestyle" model, the company allows hotel owners to pay flat monthly fees based on their number of rooms, as opposed to a percentage of revenue often charged by other company's to their franchisees. Owners, the company explained, also have short-term contracts, a voice and a vote in the direction of the brand, property improvement plans and a return-on-investment promise.

The changeover to another brand is not the first for the Second Avenue motel. Before becoming Budget Inn, the operation had been a Vagabond Inn.

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Wildhorse Resort Casino has upped the ante in support of the Walla Walla Sweets baseball team.

The Mission, Ore., entertainment resort has renewed its partnership with the team as a founding partner. The operation has committed to sponsorships for the 2012 and 2013 seasons after being a Sweets partner since the first season in 2010.

The relationship will mark the return of the "Homeruns for Charity" program, which last year drew $2,000 from Wildhorse for a Walla Walla charity. Homeruns hit by the Sweets will benefit Court Appointed Special Advocates of Walla Walla County, a program that advocates for children caught in the legal system and provides them access to educational and social services on their way to finding permanent homes.

Wildhorse, which joins Les Schwab as a founding partner of the West Coast League's Sweets, will also provide inventory signage and print, web and promotional offerings.

Season tickets for the 2012 season are nearly sold out, officials say. Partial season packages and group packages are available at 522-2255, at the Sweets Shoppe, 109 E. Main St. or online at wallawallasweets.com. Opening night is June 1.

Strictly Business is a local business column. Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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