BY JON BELL
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
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.”