Its name means “many waters” in the language of the Native Americans who first settled in this meeting place of rivers. Natural abundance created agricultural prosperity and a strategic location made Walla Walla a 19th Century shipping hub – until it was bypassed by the trans-continental railroad and its prominence was gradually eclipsed by the coastal city of Seattle. Today, Walla Walla grows wheat that is sought-after in Asian markets, produces fruit sold across the US, and has seen explosive growth of wine-making, with 160 registered vineyards. Tourists seeking fine wines and natural beauty have given birth to a thriving culinary and arts scene, providing residents and businesses with an outstanding quality of life.
Ringed by mountain ranges, however, Walla Walla is geographically isolated. It is not located on a major transport route, and has limited air service. The city is reasonably well served by incumbent broadband providers, but there are gaps in availability and service quality, and backhaul to the major Internet peering points is expensive and not always reliable. Though it is home to a high-quality university and community college, its businesses offer limited employment opportunities to graduates, and brain drain is a constant concern.
Combating Brain Drain with Strengths
The Chamber of Commerce is leading an effort to leverage Walla Walla’s existing strengths to create broadband-powered growth. In 2012, thanks to a broadband stimulus grant, the nonprofit Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) completed expansion of its fiber backbone into the Walla Walla Valley. The city is now working with carriers, institutions and businesses on ways to roll-out local connectivity to fill gaps and deliver significant bandwidth where needed.
The Chamber established a film office that has already drawn TV and film shoots and is working to attract a full-time production unit for TV, film or Web content as the anchor of a digital media and gaming cluster. Based on the success of winemaking, it is driving the creation of a Plough2Plate program to help small local food producers with marketing, branding and distribution. And it has begun to integrate the Hispanic business community – in a city where 25% of the population is now Latin American – into the mainstream to boost the growth of both Latino and Anglo businesses. Mixing big ambitions with practical steps, Walla Walla is ensuring that its legacy of success extends into an Internet-driven future.