River city success


0912 RiverCitySuccess 01Years of effort are finally paying off as several high-profile projects, like a new shipping dock and a festival park, are finally realized.

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BY JON BELL

0912 RiverCitySuccess 01
Above: Officials in The Dalles hope a new festival plaza, visible from I-84 and close to a riverfront trail, will spur new activity along the river and in downtown.
Below: The Sunshine Mill in The Dalles sat empty for nearly 30 years. Since 2009 its been the home of Copa Di Vino winery, and though the economy has applied the brakes, plans are to develop the entire building into condos, retail and office space.
// Photo by Sierra Breshears
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If there is a single landmark in The Dalles that can best represent the transition this riverside city — a 155-year-old town overflowing with landmarks — is currently going through, it might as well be the historic Sunshine Mill.

Towering seven stories above the Columbia River at the east end of town, the old wheat mill, from a distance, looks every bit of its roughly 100 years: gritty, weathered and, if one didn’t know any better, practically abandoned.

Yet closer up, there are real signs of life. Festive lights dangle from a log fence enclosing an inviting terraced courtyard. Inside, the original mechanical guts — giant pulleys, belts and pipes — speak to the mill’s past life; wine-bottle chandeliers and pyramids of Copa Di Vino single-serve wine glasses reveal its present as the Historic Sunshine Mill Winery.

In 2009 James and Molli Martin, with the help of the city’s Columbia Gateway Urban Renewal Agency, moved their Quenett and Copa Di Vino wineries into the mill. Nearly three years later, Copa is distributed in at least 40 states. The company produces the equivalent of 70,000 cases of wine annually, saw full- and part-time employment jump from seven to 74 in less than two years and is on its way to $5 million in sales.

“I think we’re definitely changing people’s minds about The Dalles,” says the Martins’ daughter, Natasha, who manages the winery’s popular tasting room.

The old mill may be one of the most visible revitalizations in The Dalles, but it’s not the only one. Years of effort from myriad entities — government, private businesses, Columbia Gorge Community College, the Port of The Dalles and The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, to name a few — are paying off in several high-profile projects that embody both the storied past of The Dalles and its transition into a more modern and innovative destination in the Columbia Gorge.

“When I first got here 11 years ago, it was like a page out of the old West,” says David Griffith, owner of Griffith Motors, a Toyota and Honda dealership that recently moved to a larger location on the west end of town. “Now, I think The Dalles is in a little bit of a breakout mode.”

 


 

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Above: After a years-long effort, the first river cruise ship is expected to tie up at The Dalles’ new dock on Sept. 17, one of many ways the city is trying to attract new visitors.
Below: A lack of parking has always made life tough on the Granada Theater, but an urban-renewal project could breathe new life into the theater and surrounding buildings.
//Photos by Sierra Breshears
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That kick into high gear has been fueled, in part, by efforts begun years ago to diversify The Dalles’ employment base, which since the 1950s had been dominated by large aluminum plants. The last of those folded for good in 2000.

“The port got its marching orders in the mid-1980s to try and diversify our industrial base,” says Andrea Klaas, executive director of the Port of The Dalles.

Over the ensuing two decades, the port acquired land, developed it and sold it. Klaas says in that time the port was able to facilitate the creation of close to 1,500 jobs by finding homes in the port district for companies like Kmart and Columbia PhytoTechnology, a maker of freeze-dried fruit and vegetable powders that moved to the port this summer. More than 45 businesses are currently located in the port’s industrial area, including Google, which now has three buildings on its site and employs close to 150 people.

Outside the port district, other long-term projects aimed at breathing new life into The Dalles are on the edge of fruition. This summer The Dalles will christen a $2.9 million dock on the Columbia River for light shipping and as a place for river cruise ships to tie up. The first ship is scheduled to pull up Sept. 17, according to city manager Nolan Young, who’s spent the better part of 15 years working on redevelopment projects in the city.

Disembarking tourists will walk a short stretch of The Dalles Riverfront Trail —when completed by 2014, it will run 10 miles from the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center east to The Dalles Dam — and stroll below Interstate 84 via an underpass built in 2004 to reconnect the city to the riverfront. They’ll pass the Lewis & Clark Festival Park, a $2.7 million plaza for community events set to open in early September; it and the dock have been in the works for 12 years. Just two blocks farther, they’ll hit downtown The Dalles and, hopefully, spend some time and money at local businesses.

Mark Linebarger is a 20-year resident of The Dalles who owns the historic Baldwin Saloon just across from the new plaza. While he’s a touch skeptical of how much impact the park and new dock will have on his business, he says he welcomes the improvements.

“What’s good for The Dalles is good for us,” he says.

Like the Sunshine Mill, downtown The Dalles is a study in contrasts. Storefronts straight out of the 1950s — a vacuum-cleaner shop, an old barbershop and a dated JC Penney — mingle with more contemporary establishments: a yoga studio, a French bistro and at least two wineries. Dilapidated buildings and empty spaces mix with renovated historic landmarks, like an 1883 courthouse that’s now a brewpub, an old Masonic lodge called the Commodore and Civic Auditorium, which have all been the focus of public and private efforts to reinvigorate the downtown while preserving its historic flavor.

The next urban-renewal project will focus around the historic Granada Theater, a 1930s-era theater in the heart of downtown bordered by several other vacant buildings. The project has seen several false starts over the years, but Young says the city is currently working with a private developer on plans for a possible hotel and conference center complex.

 


 

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Above: The Dalles Riverfront Trail leads to The Dalles Dam, which is set to resume tours this year. Tightened security nixed the tours–about 50,000 visits per year–in 2004.
Below: The Union Street underpass helped reconnect The Dalles with the Columbia River in 2004. Future renewal projects could include a railroad underpass to provide safer passage between downtown and the nearby festival plaza.
//Photos by Sierra Breshears
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High above downtown, next to Columbia Gorge Community College, construction on a National Guard readiness center is under way more than a decade after the project idea first came to light. When completed in fall 2013, the $22.5 million, 60,000-square-foot facility will replace an outdated building and free up a valuable piece of downtown property. The National Guard will use it, but it will also be available for weddings and other events. More importantly, however, it will house the college’s new workforce training center and its Renewable Energy Technology training programs to help the region grow its local employment base.

Between two campuses, CGCC has more than 5,000 full- and part-time students. In addition to its nursing program, the school’s RET program, which trains students primarily for work in the wind-energy field, is a popular one. Since 2007, more than 160 students have completed the program, driven in part by the need for wind turbine technicians.

Dan Spatz, a city councilman and chief institutional advancement officer at CGCC, says the program’s focus on electronics and aerodynamics has also piqued the interest of other companies from the Gorge’s tech cluster. One example: Insitu, the Bingen, Wash., manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles.

“There’s really a lot of crossover there, so we’re working closely with them,” Spatz says.

Though the college plays a major role in training workers in the region, Spatz acknowledges the limits of its capabilities.

“To really grow the Insitus of the world — and to bring in new Insitus — we really need R&D,” he says. “And for that, we really need four-year capacity for advanced degrees.”

 


 

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Above: Griffith Motors’ new location along I-84 opened up a valuable piece of downtown property. “We’re like anybody anyplace else,” says owner David Griffith. “We need to attract more economic development.”
// Photo by Sierra Breshears
Below: CGCC’s Dan Spatz says the school is creating a “technology ecosystem” around green energy, unmanned aerial vehicles and other industries.
//Photo by Jon Bell
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Overall, there is a sense in The Dalles that the city is finally starting to see the fruits of labors started long ago. But just as some of those efforts have taken years to come to light, there is still much to be done. Unemployment in Wasco County in June was at 8.8%, a few ticks above the statewide average. Median household income in 2010 was at $42,000, about $6,000 less than Oregon as a whole.

Although Walmart has been trying to come to The Dalles near the port for years, environmental concerns over wetlands and runoff have slowed that and other endeavors. Methamphetamine has reared its ugly head, and a lack of affordable housing adds a constraint.

The Dalles, whose population grew from 12,200 in 2000 to 14,400 in 2011, has also always had to work against a particular preconception from outsiders.

“People do tend to think that the Gorge ends in Hood River,” says Salvador Miramontes Jr., director of marketing and communications for the chamber.

Likewise, the port’s Klaas says businesses prospecting for a new location don’t often look as far east as The Dalles, even though the area’s amenities — available industrial and commercial land — and relative proximity to Portland can rival those along the I-5 corridor. The area even has a unique airport just across the river that’s been recently upgraded and is readily accessible to corporate jets.

“Somehow we just need to educate people and get them to broaden their horizons a little bit,” she says.

Through its efforts at downtown and riverfront revitalization, workforce development, an effective lobbying group called the Community Outreach Team and many other avenues, The Dalles is trying to do just that. The chamber, too, recently launched a marketing campaign that highlights The Dalles’ 300 days of sunshine, its recreational bounty and its economic potential.

It will, of course, take more than marketing campaigns and waterfront trails to get The Dalles where it’s long wanted to go. But the fact that so many years of planning and effort have finally become tangible this summer makes a pretty good case that The Dalles just might be on its way.

“It’s going to be a couple of really good years,” Young says.

Jon Bell is a Portland journalist. Reach him at [email protected].




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