Port Incubates Kitchen Use Idea

By Vicki Hillhouse, June 12, 2013, Walla Walla Union Bulletin

An empty facility. A growing culinary community. A port district with focus on building opportunities and jobs.

It could be a recipe for a new commercial kitchen in town.

The Port of Walla Walla has been cooking up plans with the Walla Walla Small Business Development Center to see if a vacated kitchen at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center could be used as an economic development project.

Port commissioners will consider whether to continue the exploration after an update during their 6 p.m. regular meeting Thursday at 310 A St.

The kitchen space is apparently surplus with construction of the VA’s new outpatient facility.

The idea is to lease the space from the VA and provide it to farmers market and mobile vendors, caterers and the like to prepare and store foods in a facility that meets health standards, said Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz.

Ideally, the setup could serve as an incubator where businesses could get started more affordably and eventually move into the community.

But Kuntz said numerous questions remain before the Port moves forward. One key component, he said, is that most kitchens of its kind typically require some kind of subsidy — a cost the Port traditionally doesn’t pay as part of its economic developments.

Commercial kitchens, Kuntz said, “are not a break-even proposition.”

The agency must determine whether it would require a perfect return-on-investment to proceed, or if the opportunity for potential business development is rewarding enough.

Officials have been consulting with mobile vendors and have even toured a commercial kitchen in Pasco. That space — considered among the best in the state, Kuntz said — reportedly has 38 regular users but operates with a $50,000 subsidy.

Kuntz said he wouldn’t expect nearly as many users here. Rates for the individuals also are difficult because they can’t be too high to price people out of using them. Hence, the subsidy would pay for a facility manager, as well as utilities and other costs.

Pasco, he said, justifies the cost because that community counts seven current businesses that started with the help of the kitchen.

Should commissioners agree to further explore the idea, the first next step would be identifying potential users.

“If commissioners want to purse this, the very first thing is figuring out where the demand is so we can get people in advance to say, ‘Yes, we need something like this, and we will use it,’” Kuntz said.

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