Small Town, Big Changes

Photos by | Jason Kaplan
The foundation for a new custom home in Mosier Bluffs

Will property development rescue Mosier — or ruin it?

Share this article!

Stroll down the few blocks of Main Street on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll experience a new sense of vitality and growth.

The former gas station is a boutique furniture store. The small farmers’ market boasts blueberries, raw honey and a hot marimba band. An Indonesian food cart serves up beef rendang. The farm-to-table restaurant Rack & Cloth serves award-winning cider.

Up in the hills, large modern homes featuring soaking tubs and concrete floors are sprouting in the Mosier Bluffs and Tanawashee developments. And everyone you meet talks about the impending opening of Mosier Company, a restaurant, bar and coffee roaster opened by three local families in August.

After languishing for decades, the tiny Columbia Gorge town of Mosier, population 451, seems poised for renewal. Nearby Hood River has exploded into a major tourist destination and startup hub with the resultant crowds and traffic. To the east, The Dalles has made its own efforts to enliven a sleepy downtown core.

RELATED STORY: Next Year in The Dalles

But with development pressures bearing down on the Gorge, and with the new residential projects on the verge of adding a couple hundred new residents, Mosier is grappling with its identity.

What should it be exactly? A tourist destination? A startup hub? A bedroom community? As residents debate the formula for the future, some fear that too much growth might ruin the very things that make Mosier special, including the small-town atmosphere where everybody knows your name.

“We want fettered growth,” says Emily Reed, Mosier’s city council president and an independent brand consultant who telecommutes globally. “We want to keep our character and our tradition. It’s not an easy balance.”

IMG 0184Mosier city council president and brand consultant Emily Reed

Mosier was never big, but once it bustled.

Nestled in a valley near the confluence of two creeks, it was a natural hub for native peoples, emigrants, loggers, farmers and adventurers. Jonah Mosier settled in the area in 1854 and built a succession of sawmills at the mouth of the creek that now bears his name. The warm climate, combined with abundant water, proved an ideal combination for fruit farming, particularly apples, pears, and cherries.

IMG 0751View from one of the new homes in Mosier Bluffs

By the 1910s Mosier boasted 44 businesses, including a bank, a hotel, a pool hall, a barbershop, several blacksmiths, and a weekly newspaper, The Mosier Bulletin. Highway 30, completed in the 1920s, rolled right through town, bringing visitors and tourists.mosier at a glance

But a series of misfortunes altered its destiny.

A massive fire ravaged the downtown area in 1919. The construction of the Bonneville Dam in 1937 raised the water level of the Columbia River and put a big chunk of the town underwater. Mosier lost its steamboat connection and its rail depot.

The advent of Interstate 84 rendered Highway 30 practically obsolete. The state stopped maintaining key stretches of the highway and closed the Mosier Tunnels, which had connected Mosier to Hood River.

Once a hub of the Gorge, Mosier became the town that time forgot. There is still no grocery store, no gas station, no ATM.

Perhaps the first sign of revival came in 2002 when the North Wasco County School District, based in The Dalles, threatened to close down a key local institution — the Mosier High School — because of declining enrollment. The town fought back. Residents drew up a plan for a public charter K5 school in just four weeks and got it approved.

“The town recognized that the school was the heart of the community,” says city manager Kathy Fitzpatrick.

Today, the Mosier Community School is the town’s biggest employer (agriculture and service sectors are the other main job creators), and it draws 40% of its 133 students from outside Mosier.

The school scored seven out of 10 in academic standards in the state 2015-16 report, even though 46% of its students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Its after-school activities include chess, drama, skiing, coding, choir and rugby.

DSCF6398Mosier Community School attracts students from around the Gorge.

Mosier has also worked hard to upgrade its infrastructure. Over the past decade or so, it rebuilt the water system, constructed three new reservoirs and switched from a flat rate to a metered system, which cut down on losses from leaks.

Residents grumble about the rail line that runs through Mosier, reverberating with oil trains — one of which derailed last year, disgorging thousands of gallons of oil and setting off a hillside blaze that forced half the town to evacuate.

Yet in partial compensation, Union Pacific will donate 2.5 acres of land on the north side of Highway 30 in the heart of Mosier, and the city hopes to build a new community center, fire hall and city hall on the site.

“I want slow, purposeful growth.” — Tom Garnier

City leaders are busy planning other projects, including:

• Revitalizing Main Street by putting in cobblestones, slowing traffic and making the district more inviting to pedestrians.

• Completing the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. When the final 5-mile section is finished, the historical highway will give hikers and cyclists access from Troutdale to The Dalles. Officials in Mosier hope the completion of the Mitchell Point Segment, currently scheduled for 2022, will boost tourism all along the trail, which runs through downtown Mosier.

These plans will doubtless help Mosier attract more investment. And given projections for an influx of new residents in the coming years, Mosier may not languish for much longer.

IMG 0760

In 2005 Mike Rockwell placed a big bet on Mosier. He put down $700,000 for a 30-acre parcel high on the bluff overlooking the valley. Rockwell, a realtor based in Hood River, figured it was a sure thing.

“It has gorgeous views. I could do big lots. And Mosier’s a great community.” — Mike Rockwell

With his partners, he spent roughly $3 million to develop the 33 lots in the Mosier Bluffs subdivision — grading the land, paving a road and installing water, sewer and power lines.

Rockwell sold the first three lots quickly. Then came the recession. “The crash stopped everything,” he says. “We went two years without a single sale. It was brutal.”

Neighboring Hood River bounced back reasonably quickly, but the recovery in Mosier was slow to arrive. Month after month, Rockwell clung on.

This year he turned the corner. Twenty-eight of the 33 lots are now sold or in escrow, and houses are beginning to sprout up.

“We’ve finally got momentum,” Rockwell says. “It’s been 12 long years, but we’re in the home stretch.”

Another project, the Tanawashee development, got rolling in 2015. Although only two houses have been completed, another is under construction and several more are planned in the coming year, according to listing agent Ruth Chausse at Don Nunamaker Realtors.

The lots range from $110,000 to $145,000, and the last house sold for $522,000. When complete, the subdivision will probably include 44 to 50 houses.

And perched above the river on the east side of town, the 34 townhouses in Mosier Creek offer a contemporary, urban vibe with solar panels and LEED certification.

IMG 0700Developer Mike Rockwell

The sense of momentum is backed up by figures from Mosier’s tiny City Hall. From 2006 until 2010, the city barely issued a single construction permit. Today there are 17 open permits for single-family homes, not including homes that have recently been constructed.

If all goes as planned, this development alone could increase Mosier’s population by about 50% over the next few years. But it’s difficult to determine how many of the homeowners would be permanent residents and how many would be purchasing as second homes.

While the current Mosier population mostly welcomes the increase in their own home values, these sorts of prices imply, they are taking a wait-and-see approach about how an influx of the new residents, who are more affluent than most of the old-timers.

Take Brandon McKey, who moved from North Portland to Mosier Bluffs with his wife and daughter in July. 

McKey is a project manager who works in The Dalles; his wife is an advertising and brand manager for VinMotion, a custom wine-services agency. They looked at houses in Hood River, but prices were steep and they didn’t see anything that appealed to them.

“So we drove down the highway to Mosier and found a lot on the hill with a panoramic view for $100,000,” he says.

They designed and built a house with four bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, and a whopping 3,500 square feet of finished space — plus a garage. That’s a big house for a town where roughly a quarter of all housing units are mobile homes.

DSCF6341A custom home in Mosier Bluffs

“We love the views, we love the outdoor life and we love the small-town atmosphere,” McKey says.

The main drawback? Slow internet. Even after installing a dish antenna, his top internet speed is barely five megabits per second.mosier fast facts

The McKeys are just the sort of new residents that Mosier’s leaders are hoping to attract — families who want to set down roots and contribute to the community.

At the same time, the influx of new residents is bound to challenge the status quo of the town, where only 16% of the population boasts a college degree, and the median household income stands below $43,000.

Many locals fear an invasion of outsiders bent on trophy mansions and leisure palaces — what one resident derisively calls “Californians with megahouses.”

“You can’t build a community on second homes,” says former Mayor Matthew Koerner, who has lived in Mosier for 29 years. With property prices zooming higher in Hood River, he is warily optimistic that Mosier will attract middle-class families that are being priced out of its booming neighbor.

“We’re at a turning point,” he says. “I feel like now it’s Mosier’s turn, but I don’t know — I’m not getting any younger.”

There is no doubt that population growth has put pressure on Gorge communities. Wasco County grew by 5.9% from 2010 to 2016, according to the Population Research Center at Portland State University. Nonetheless, environmental groups have not criticized residential development in Mosier and other cities and towns.

“In general, we support development in the Gorge so long as it takes place inside urban limits,” says Michael Lang, conservation director of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

“You’ve got to look at whether it makes sense for Mosier. But if the development is supported by residents inside the area, we don’t usually get involved.”

IMG 0813The grand opening of Mosier Company, a new pub and eatery. Realtor Mike Rockwell is playing the piano.

The way forward might be to reconnect with Mosier’s agricultural roots.

Tom Garnier is an industrial guy — CEO of Wilsonville’s SSI Shredding Systems, which makes massive industrial shredding and compacting systems. But in 2000 he fell in love with the historic Mayerdale mansion and estate high on the hill just east of Mosier.

He didn’t think too much about the 335 acres of cherry orchards that came along with it.

“I just wanted to make the farm sustainable — that’s all,” he says. But that first year, the rains came early and ruined his crop of Bing cherries. He had to lay off 180 cherry pickers. “It was devastating,” he says.

Then a friend made an intriguing suggestion: grapes.

Today Garnier Wines has more than 100 acres of vines and bottles several wines, including a mouthwatering Grenache. Garnier restored the mansion and turned an old garage into a wine-tasting room, complete with a spectacular view of the Gorge. He has also diversified his cherry crop, adding varieties such as chelans, sweethearts and bentons.

The winery now employs 10 people full-time, plus scores of seasonal workers.

“I want slow, purposeful growth,” Garnier says. “There’s not a lot of infrastructure in Mosier, so what do you do? Keep it small and simple. I think Mosier will do OK. It’s a strong community.”

IMG 0784

The challenges facing Mosier are hardly unique. Across the West, thousands of small communities are wrestling with hard questions about their futures as the relentless logic of urbanization hollows the rural landscape.

Mosier is fortunate to have some strategic advantages: outstanding natural beauty, a strong school, a booming neighbor, freeway access and rustic charm. Perhaps most important, it also has a solid agricultural base that provides a strong sense of identity.

But Mosier will have to make some difficult choices about how much change the town can handle.

IMG 0286Rack & Cloth co-owner Kristina Nance

Back at Rack & Cloth, the bartender pours flights of small-batch cider as customers trickle in to listen to the house band, Prollyotta, and exchange the latest news.

All in all, the ciderhouse is a good example of a local business adding value to local traditions. Instead of selling apples to a processor for $15 a bushel, it sells cider to thirsty customers for $6.50 a pint. The venue also serves pizza featuring seasonal fruits and vegetables from Pomona’s Branch Farm: asparagus, beets, peaches, apricots and pork.

Local residents don’t want to lose Mosier’s small-town character, says Fitzpatrick, the city manager.

“It’s important we don’t become gentrified,” she says. “It’s important that the community stays authentic.”

A version of this article appears in the September issue of Oregon Business magazine.