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DAYTON, Wash. (AP) — A proposed food-processing park for artisan, natural and sustainable foods is approaching another milestone in Dayton.

The Port of Columbia has received an $8,000 grant from Pacific Power to help market Blue Mountain Station, which Port Manager Jenny Dickinson said would be the nation's first eco-food park.

And the port is close to completing a plan for the 28-acre park's infrastructure. Once that document is completed and approved — likely this fall or spring 2011, she said — the port will seek bids to build the infrastructure.

When constructed and fully developed on the town's west end — a process that Dickinson said could take a decade or longer — Blue Mountain Station could employ up to 300, she said.

Supporters say it would provide a home for a cluster of artisan, natural and organic food processors that use local products grown using sustainable and eco-friendly practices — filling a niche in the fast-growing natural and specialty foods market.

"There are no clusters of businesses where this is taking place, and there are a lot of small businesses — like a Chukar Cherries — making a specialty product," she said. "So we believe there is a real need for a park like this."

Dave Zepponi, president of the Northwest Food Processors Association, said he is unaware of any park that caters to makers of specialty food products, and he likes the concept. The association has more than 400 member companies, including 72 food processors.

"It has some merit. Having it in Dayton is a bit off the beaten track, but given the wine scene that's in that region, it could get some traction," he said. "It's a good idea to develop something like this, and there will definitely be synergies from having clusters (of businesses) together."

There already is interest from potential tenants. A port representative went to a trade show in California to promote the park and came away with leads.

"Eight or nine businesses said to us, 'When you figure out the cost of square footage, let us know,' " Dickinson said.

Dayton for decades was a food-processing center for locally grown vegetables, employing more than 1,000 seasonal workers during peak production at what was the Green Giant packing plant. But in 2005, Seneca announced that it was closing its asparagus processing plant.

The port in 2007 conducted a marketing study of potential business development to revitalize the local economy.

A food park focused on products that use eco-friendly and sustainably grown ingredients emerged as the most promising prospect, given Dayton's history and proximity to local produce.

The port also formed an advisory committee for the project that includes food scientists, nutritionists and economists. Last year, with a Community Economic Revitalization Board grant, it bought the 28 acres for about $735,000.

"For a tiny port, we are making progress. The fact we are close to putting infrastructure in the ground — that's big," Dickinson said.

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