Sparks fly at the Sustainable Agricultural and Energy center as a construction worker welds a massive spiral staircase that leads to a conveyor belt that will turn potatoes into twisted french fries.
With attractions such as hot air balloon rides and corn-planting games, the farming city’s attempt to bring tourism to the Port of Morrow is set to debut June 1.
According to Gary Neal, the Port of Morrow’s general manager, the $7 million SAGE center began with a disappointment when Tillamook cheese came to town in 2001, but decided against targeting tourists.
“When we got ready to discuss more details we asked, ‘Where’s the visitor center going to be?’” Neal said. The original cheese factory in Tillamook has a large visitor center showing the cheese-making process.
“(Tillamook’s) particular position was, ‘We just want to make cheese here.’”
Neal said the Port of Morrow decided to take matters into its own hands, getting half the required $7 million from the state legislature and the other half from their own savings.
And while there is an exhibit on cheese at the SAGE center — where patrons can feel the mushy curds in their hands — the endeavor has broadened from dairy to showcase all of Boardman’s agricultural and energy industries.
“This allows us to educate people about our natural resource-based economy and how we feed the world from here,” Neal said.
The center is being filled with hands-on exhibits, including a kinetic sculpture showing the life of a potato, a 204-seat theater set for 3-D “World of Water” movies, John Deere tractor rides and an replica hot-air balloon that lifts 18 inches, twisting and turning through a projected aerial tour of Morrow County.
SAGE center manager Kalie Davis has been rallying the community around the future tourism site since starting the position in September.
“It’s going to be huge, not just for Boardman and Morrow County, but all of Eastern Oregon,” Davis said. “We’re really showcasing the region.”
With a population of just over 3,000 in Boardman, Davis said the port is counting on well-placed billboards along Interstate 84, along with school busloads of children, to bring in the desired 30,000 to 40,000 visitors per year. Boardman’s chamber of commerce can also expect more foot traffic by moving its offices to the center.
The Port of Morrow asked Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner) to search out funds to bring school buses from as far away as the Willamette Valley.
Although Smith said he has not yet been able to fulfill the port’s request, he said he’s excited about the prospect of teaching people about the region.
“It’s going to serve as a tool to instruct and educate Oregonians on where their food comes from,” Smith said.
Davis said she is looking for community volunteers to keep the SAGE center running after its summer opening. Two volunteer fairs will take place April 9, 12 p.m to 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Contact Davis at 541-481-7678 for more information.
Contact Natalie Wheeler at email@example.com or 541-564-4547.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.