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|Tuesday, May 01, 2007|
A river town's resolve
The overnight success of The Dalles has taken decades, pushed by grit, vision, timing and hometown passion. Google? Yesterday’s news.
By Robin Doussard
Depending on where you stand, the city of The Dalles presents very different sides. One is from above the city, at the Mid-Columbia Veterans Memorial at Sorosis Park. From there, the town’s beauty is evident: Golden hills roll down to the Columbia River under clear blue skies; breathtaking vistas unfold for miles; the historic city center nestles close to the river. “Uniquely situated” is the mayor’s marketing line and, yes, you can see that from here: rail, highway, port, water, affordable land, sun; all fortuitously converging in the valley below, where the Oregon Trail ended and a town began 150 years ago.
The view is not as lofty at river level. Retail sprawl and rough industrial land greet you as you enter the city on the highway. (“We kind of show our ass first,” says local businessman James Martin.) There are vacant downtown stores and lots, and housing stock that’s seen better days. At street level, you see a small town still recovering from big industry collapse, severe job loss and recession; a town still considered “distressed” because of its low incomes, high unemployment and poverty.
After the Martin Marietta aluminum plants closed in 1984, taking 1,200 jobs, there was a “rebirth,” says Durow. (Northwest Aluminum later bought the plants and reopened them in the late 1980s. They closed in 2000, and 1,000 jobs again were lost.) It started with a community that agreed “over and over to tax itself despite our poverty and income rates.” An urban renewal agency and enterprise zone were created, a master plan for the riverfront was conceived, and plans to diversify the economy were made.
“It might appear that we were an overnight success,” Durow says, “but it has been 20 years. Google was the icing on the cake. We were already in an economic turnaround.”
The mayor wants to “turn the town back around to face the river,” and projects such as the Union Street underpass, and another planned at Washington Street, are designed to create a gateway into the city from the Columbia. Important to this is the plan for a new cruise dock that will cost $2.3 million and allow the big ships to come up river with their dollar-laden tourists. City manager Nolan Young says that $250,000 in local money has been committed, and the search is on for federal funds for the rest. In the meantime, there are plans for a temporary dock to be installed this summer.
There are other dreams: redeveloping the old flour mill; improving the city’s look through a public arts project; making social responsibility a formal city goal; creating a golf course on the airport property in Dallesport, Wash.; various wind, dam and hydro ideas. Leaders are continuing to focus on diversifying the business base beyond its largest employers (Mid-Columbia Medical Center and agriculture are two) to help safeguard against the historic boom-and-bust of the region.
Young ticks off some of the projects in the city’s strategic plan: the second highway underpass; the completion of the riverfront trail; restoration of the Gitchell Building, which was built in 1867 as a drug store and is considered the oldest commercial building in The Dalles. The city also wants to upgrade the look of First, Third and Fourth streets in an $8 million project to fix sidewalks and drainage, and install streetlights and trees.
All the projects are in various stages of finding funding. The Dalles is considered to have one of the most effective lobbying groups in the state with its Community Outreach Team, lauded last year by the Oregon Economic Development Association. It’s a collaborative mix of civic, business and government leaders whose strategy is “we never ask D.C. for the first dollar,” says Van Cleave. The city manager estimates that in the past seven years, the team has snagged $6 million in federal funding.
Another prodigal son is Keef Morgan. A Dalles native, the 31-year-old Morgan returned three years ago after leaving town post high school to travel the world building ships. He now sells real estate alongside his dad, and says business has been hopping.
Morgan sees a lot of people in his age group coming to The Dalles because “it’s a really good place to live.” He’s bought a home and takes full advantage of the recreation just outside his door.
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