Next year in The Dalles

Photo courtesy of National Neon Sign Museum

Downtown embarks on revitalization with new breweries, a renovated theater and a neon sign museum.

Share this article!

Aaron Lee embodies the changes underway in The Dalles. A former employee at the local aluminum plant, Lee is co-owner of Sedition Brewery Company, one of two breweries that opened in this Columbia Gorge city in 2016.

“The Dalles is moving from a blue-collar industrial town to a more tourism-oriented area trying to get people to come off the freeway and experience downtown,” Lee said.

Lee is not the only resident to express confidence in The Dalles’ rebirth.

Civic leaders in this Wasco County city — the largest Oregon city on the Columbia River — have been touting a downtown comeback for almost a decade.

They talked about a revival in 2013, the last time I visited. 

They are talking about it now, too.

“A lot of things are happening, and in the next few years we are going to see other new stuff happening,” said Steve Harris, The Dalles’ planning director.

“We’ve got some internal growth from existing businesses looking to expand, and we have development interests outside that are looking to have a presence here.” 

Harris ticked off a list of current projects: 

Portland-based Tokola Properties is negotiating with The Dalles’ urban renewal agency to purchase the Tony’s Town & Country building, demolish the structure, then  construct a mixed use retail and apartment complex.

In 2015 the agency purchased the historic Elks building for about $180,000. The city donated the property to a Vancouver, Wash. resident who is converting the space into a Neon Sign Museum.  The museum will  house a bookstore and café and is slated to open this summer.  

IMG 3758Photo by | Lisa Bauso

In March the city sold the historic Granada theater to Charles Gomez Productions. The theater was built in 1929.

Harris said the owners, who have renovated a theater in Illinois, paid $60,000 to buy the venue and are expected to invest as much as $300,000 to restore the building.

Then there are the breweries, Sedition Brewing and Freebridge Brewing, the latter founded by the descendants of a local rancher’s family.

A growing body of research has identified craft beer production and consumption as the first wave of gentrification in an industrial area. 

Walk down Second avenue on a Memorial Day afternoon, as I did last weekend, and watch the wave slowly pick up steam.

Lycra-clad cyclists walk their bikes past the Dalles Iron Works, an historic welding business. The shop has yet to be repurposed as an artisan cheese shop or coffee house, my traveling companion observed.

Diners occupy several “parklets,” former parking spaces converted into restaurant seating. The parklets are located in front of newer venues like Route 30 Bottles and Brew (which opened in 2015), as well as more established watering holes such as Zim’s Brau Haus.

A few locals and tourists browse Klindts Booksellers, the oldest bookshop in the state.

All told, The Dalles, circa 2017, feels like a budding Hood River in the making.

A former Native American trading post and aluminum casting mecca, The Dalles, population 15,000, attracted national attention when Google built its first data center here in 2006.

The tech giant is forging ahead with a new $600 million data center on property about a mile from its existing server farm. Google, which employs about 200 locals, has also purchased 74 acres formerly occupied by a Northwest Aluminum smelting plant.

Unemployment in The Dalles is a low 4%. And new businesses are moving in.

“A lot of activity is happening in Hood River, and we’re seeing some of that spillover effect as that market tightens,” said Harris. 

Harris said he had a meeting last week with a Hood River business “in a [Google-related] industry” interested in expanding to The Dalles.

The city doles out $200,000 annually in property rehab loans, Harris added.

It’s easy to imagine The Dalles enlivened by renovated historic buildings, much like the elegant renovation that transformed downtown Albany, another blue collar community in transition.

But by almost any standard, downtown is still languishing.

The J.C. Penney is closing its doors as part of a wave of closures the national retailer initiated this spring.

Alexandria Elkwood, co–owner of the health food store Holistic Essentials, said she is the third owner to try and make a go of the shop, which occupies a postage stamp space on Second avenue.

IMG 9322Photo by | Lisa Bauso

Several downtown businesses closed this winter, the worst in ten years. The snow stuck around for several months, Elkwood said.

Lee is more optimistic. The 50-year-old proprietor sold his house this month to a couple in Hawaii for $310,000. One of the new owners writes code for Hewlett- Packard and will telecommute.

“The real estate market is screaming hot,” Lee said.

Are two breweries in The Dalles one too many? Lee laughed. “Everyone asks me that.”

“My friends said,” ‘Oh my God. There are two of you.’  But when I broke ground, I said: ‘There will be another one.  And there will be third one.  And that third brewery will be a million dollar brewery.’  They have changed the community.”