More than 10,000 cars and trucks whiz past Ritzville on Interstate 90 each day. Some in the town of roughly 1,700 residents hope a wheat-themed interpretive center could lure some of those drivers to stop.
The goal is simple, they say: boost tourism and make Ritzville more than a potty stop.
In Ritzville, as in many rural towns across the Northwest, the population is shrinking, local businesses are closing, and the farm economy that fueled growth in the past has suffered disruptive ups and downs.
Over the past two years a group of Ritzville civic leaders has begun pushing an economic development project that would create a small roadside wheat farm linked with a museum, shopping complex and visitors center.
Many, like former City Council member Ann Olson, have come to terms with the interstate that was completed in the 1960s and that diverted traffic from downtown Ritzville.
“People here now think the freeway could be our salvation,” Olson said.
For old-timers in Adams County, the idea recalls efforts in the 1940s and ’50s to build a national wheat museum in Ritzville. Ritzville Mayor Linda Kadlec said that dream, launched by area farmers, raised some money but in the end died quietly from lack of backing.
But for a time, the effort got enough momentum that some state maps added the phrase “wheat museum” next to Ritzville’s name, Kadlec noted.
Last year the new initiative was put into higher gear by the Ritzville Public Development Authority, which raised state and local money and hired a research group to study the concept.
The consultant, Cardno Entrix, based in Missoula, found that the wheat center idea was feasible and could make money. The report said it might create dozens of jobs.
With the right mix of businesses – such as a bakery, a wheat-based distillery and an eatery – the project could produce between $600,000 and $1 million in retail and wholesale sales annually.
Last fall the development group asked Washington State University-Spokane’s interdisciplinary design institute to create visual renditions of the project for public review and discussion.
That happened after associate professor Janetta McCoy got 14 of her design students to interview about 20 Ritzville residents.
McCoy has worked on other rural projects for Washington cities and towns. When she reviewed the Ritzville proposal, she concluded an interactive wheat museum, if done creatively, could be a big success and draw people off the interstate.
“We’re losing, many of us anyway, our connection to where food comes from. This project would explain how wheat is grown and how foods are made from it,” she said.
One company contacted about possibly locating a business at the Ritzville site is Spokane’s Dry Fly Distilling. The craft distiller, which uses wheat to make some of its beverages, would be eager to be part of the project, co-founder Don Poffenroth said.
The project planners have identified two 20-acre parcels, both currently being farmed, as potential sites. One is right off Interstate 90. The second site is a few blocks north of the freeway exit, near the McDonald’s and the Starbucks.
Olson, who has been a supporter of the project, said she likes the idea of encouraging visitors to plant wheat seedlings at the display farm.
“That way people can come back later, with their children, and see how much the wheat has grown,” she said.
Olson said the hands-on idea of a wheat center is loosely modeled after the Tillamook Cheese Factory in Tillamook, Ore.
Other agriculture-based museums the backers have studied include the Wheat Montana Farms and Bakery, the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, and the Mill City Museum in Minnesota.
Kris Robbins, Ritzville’s city clerk and a member of the Ritzville Public Development Authority, said a few residents are unhappy that the focus is along the freeway.
They contend that investing in a project next to I-90 will hasten the decline of the downtown area.
Most residents, however, see the project as the right approach, knowing that the highway is where the money is, Robbins said.
The next steps involve looking for potential developers and investors. Initial estimates peg the startup cost of a center at more than $4 million, Robbins said.
Mayor Kadlec said the city is limited to being able to extend utilities to the project, but she sees her role as being a cheerleader.
She plans to travel to Seattle this year to meet contractors and developers, she said.
“If we give them a good reason to look at us, and see what we’re offering, I’m convinced we’ll find the people who can turn this into reality,” she said.