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In 2012 The Dalles, a city of some 14,400 located 75 miles east of Portland and often seen as the poor cousin to adjacent Hood River, completed a massive project to revitalize its dock.

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 0914 regional dalles
The Dalles Mayor Steve Lawrence, second from left,
flanked by American Queen Steamboat Co. execs


In 2012 The Dalles, a city of some 14,400 located 75 miles east of Portland and often seen as the poor cousin to adjacent Hood River, completed a massive project to revitalize its dock. The $4 million project was funded with urban-renewal money, a federal grant and ConnectOregon transportation funds. According to city manager Nolan Young, the dock revitalization is part of the city’s larger vision to reconnect the downtown area with the riverfront.

“Previously we were a river town,” explains Young, who has been managing the city for 17 years. “But in the 1960s, the freeway cut the downtown from the river. We’re working to get that back.” The new dock, built on the site of the previous dock, as well as a ferry that offered shuttle service to Washington state just across the river, can accommodate sailboats, small pleasure craft, cruise ships and even some light shipping for industry. Some city officials and notoriously suspicious-of-change residents in The Dalles were concerned about the price tag associated with these projects. Even the Union Street underpass, which now connects the riverfront to Festival Park and also gives bike riders access to the downtown, was initially met with skepticism. “They worried we were building a road to nowhere,” Young explains.

But everyone agrees that the pedestrian walkway has been a success, and now with the new dock in place, The Dalles has become a cruise ship destination. Though the wide streets downtown still have vacant storefronts (15% to 20% at last count), The Dalles is enjoying more economic vitality than it has since the timber industry folded in this region in the early 1990s and the national economy took a downward spiral in 2008. In 2013, 50 ships stopped or docked overnight in The Dalles. This year that number will almost double to just under a hundred.

There’s big fanfare when the ships come in: Local volunteers of a certain age dressed in pioneer garb and sporting bright-red lipstick (these ladies are affectionately or derisively dubbed the “Four Floozies,” depending on who’s talking about them) greet the cruise ship visitors as they disembark. Sandoz Farm, a local business, has built a cart to take down to the dock to sell passengers farm-fresh produce and their signature pickled asparagus, marionberry jelly and canned cherries. Two of the city’s food carts have also taken to parking in Festival Park, which is just over 100 feet away, connected by the Union Street underpass, so hungry cruise line guests can enjoy some off-the-boat food.

“People are going nutso,” laughs Lisa Farquharson, president and CEO of The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce. She says the biggest cruise line, the American Empress, offers its own shuttle bus service to five destination points in town: the Columbia Gorge Discovery Museum, the Fort Dalles Museum, the Wasco County Courthouse, the Sunshine Mill and downtown. Farquharson herself grew up in The Dalles but moved away for 30 years. “Businesses are opening up or staying open later because of the ships; some people have visited us from the ships, then gone back and grabbed their cars to come stay with us.”

The city’s goal is to have as many as two cruise ships a day anchored at The Dalles, which is what the new dock can accommodate. In the meantime, The Dalles has its sights set on a new project: a $5 million 50-acre business park adjacent to the Columbia River that will attract higherpaying professional jobs, slated to be completed by October.

“We’ve been tracking our admissions, which are really impacted by the boats on the river that are bused here. We’ve seen a 33% increase in our admissions income, so that’s about a $51,000 difference in the money coming in to support our organization. The impact is huge for us.” —Carolyn Purcell, Executive Director, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Wasco County Museum, The Dalles

“The cruise ships coming in provide us with exposure for our community. They also bring in shoppers — they shop in our retail stores, eateries, and wineries. They are going to all our museums too. It’s amazing. We have this opportunity right here at our own dock for people to fall in love with The Dalles.” —Lisa Farquharson, President and CEO, The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce

The most luxurious accommodations aboard the American Empress, the largest and considered the most elegant riverboat in the Pacific Northwest, include a private veranda, a plush bedroom with queen-sized bed and chandelier, a separate sitting room, and panoramic views. This 410 square-foot room costs $6,595 for a nine-day trip. (Source: American Empress)