Variety proves a smart growth strategy for North-Central Oregon.
Photos by Jason Kaplan
If you traveled back in time to Northern Central Oregon circa 25 million years ago, you’d find a landscape being forged by diverse elements, with ice and lava gradually carving out the dramatic geological formations that today make the Columbia Gorge Region famous.
Wind the clock back just 10,000 years and you’d see economic diversity materializing at a crossroads of land and maritime commerce surrounded by fertile microclimates.
Today, maintaining a varied economic base is key to the region’s economic health, says Port of The Dalles executive director Andrea Klaas: “I’m not going to say we’re recession-proof, but we definitely had a good buffer. When communities are reliant on a sole industry to support the community and a recession happens, it can be pretty traumatic.”
The Port of The Dalles serves a 270-square-mile swathe of northern Wasco County, Oregon, bordered by the Columbia River.
Its position in the rain shadow of the Cascades Range means it is sunnier and drier than its neighbors to the west. Here, grains, cherries, wine grapes and specialty crops like lavender and garlic flourish.
Two incorporated towns lie within the district: The Dalles and Dufur. Like many in rural Oregon, these communities contended with the necessity of economic reinvention beginning in the 1980s, when the timber and aluminum industries began to slow.
In the decades since, developing and selling industrial property has been central to the Port’s job creation and capital investment strategy, notes Klaas. A Google data center was built here in 2005, generating some much-needed economic energy, and now the Port is helping its communities develop the infrastructure to accommodate continued growth as that energy keeps rippling outward.
Port of The Dalles Executive Director Andrea Klaas stands in view of Google expansion project.
Two Communities, Two Transitions
The Dalles marks the overland end of The Oregon Trail, and it remains a meeting point for the mid-Columbia region today.
In recent years, though, the historically bustling city has had a sleepy reputation.
The Dalles Main Street, a nonprofit community organization, aims to change that by revitalizing the downtown corridor, says the executive director, Jeremiah Paulsen. As existing businesses expand and new businesses arrive — including several breweries and taprooms — downtown is developing some serious personality.
Port by the Numbers
Number of businesses
operating in the Port of The Dalles industrial area
Number of workers
industrial area businesses employ
Average inches of rainfall
annually in The Dalles
Population of Dufur
Population of The Dalles
“There’s been this energy shift that everyone’s noticed,” Paulsen says. “When I first moved here [in 2014], streets were empty at night. No one was out and about doing anything, stores were closed. That’s different now.”
The Port’s role in the revitalization? To cross-promote downtown’s offerings and to grow the workforce needed to run the registers and brew the beer.
The Dalles Main Street Executive Director Jeremiah Paulsen
It’s not uncommon for residents of Dufur, a small farming community 15 miles south, to drive to The Dalles twice in the course of a busy day.
Port of The Dalles Commissioner and one-time Dufur Mayor Robert Wallace does it all the time.
But this is no suburb, he contends; it’s a proud community with its own ideas about growth. It’s also home to Azure Standard, the nation’s largest independent natural and organic food distributor.
Plenty of other businesses (and families) would love to relocate here, says Wallace, but existing infrastructure (things like water, wastewater and internet) can’t accommodate an influx.
With the Port’s help, Dufur is crafting a strategic vision for tackling these challenges without sacrificing that small-town feel.
“People are open to growth,” says Wallace. “I think also folks are concerned; we don’t want to double in size … there’s a lot of opportunities, and we’ve got to be open-minded in looking at those and figuring out what makes sense.”
A Homegrown Workforce
Of course, you can’t grow your economy without growing a skilled workforce to drive it, and to do that, you’ve got to address opportunity gaps, notes North Wasco County School District superintendent Candy Armstrong.
Today, the district prepares students to enter the region’s workforce by focusing on both hard- and soft-skills training, beginning as early as elementary school. The Port is helping the process by enlisting local businesses needing workers to pair with students for career exploration experiences called mentorships.
“What we hear from employers so many times is ‘Get the kids the good basic academic core skills, and if they have that work ethic, we can take them from there,’” says Armstrong.
One of the best-known businesses around, Google, has partnered with the school districts to help with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and fund robotics teams. They’ve also committed to provide Chromebooks for every student at The Dalles Middle School.
The passage of Oregon Ballot Measure 98, which funds efforts to increase high school graduation rates, will help with workforce preparation, but multi-institutional collaboration is also essential, says Armstrong: “We’re really taking a regional approach. We’re not focusing just on The Dalles, but on the region, and that includes both sides of the [Columbia] River.”
Students from NWCSD regularly bus to Columbia Gorge Community College for career and tech education. Some students will later study there, and when they graduate, they need better access to regional jobs, says CGCC community outreach manager Dan Spatz: “The industries we have in our region actually have long-term positions open and can’t find people to fill them. But you need the right skills.”
Gorge Works, a new internship program the Port is developing with CGCC and regional businesses, will connect the dots by offering students apprenticeships that have the potential to develop into those sought-after permanent employment opportunities.
“[Students] will stay if they can see the path,” says Spatz. “They have family, connections here. Some are fourth-, fifth-generation students or more. There’s always an interest in staying close to home.”
Whatever else has shifted for these communities, agriculture has been a stalwart, notes Brian Tuck, Regional Administrator for Oregon State University’s Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Many things grow well here, and the region’s agricultural entrepreneurs are ready to innovate, says Tuck: “The growers here are very astute folks; they’re very well educated, very focused on being sustainable farmers and ranchers … you’ve got some very intelligent, very smart people who are looking for opportunities.”
Make it easier for them to experiment with value-added products, and they’ll wrest more income from their crops: That’s the concept behind the Rock Fort Agriculture Learning and Business Center, a nascent Port project that would enable growers and ranchers to test out food-processing techniques at a state-of-the-art facility.
“It’s a way to diversify the economy some so that the farmers and ranchers that are producing the products have another outlet for income coming in,” explains Klaas. “You don’t just pick cherries; you make chocolate-covered cherries. You don’t just harvest wheat; you make a special noodle.”
Google, in background, provided land for The Dalles Imagination Garden, pictured.
A Season for Innovation
Port of The Dalles has been busy lately — as busy as Klaas has seen it in a decade. Google’s building a second facility. Businesses are expanding, and housing starts are booming, creating demand for electricians, welders, plumbers and mechanics. And this year’s cherry and wheat harvests are looking good.
Moving forward will mean continuing to leverage this region’s elemental and inborn diversity, all the way from what gets planted in the ground to what gets planted on Main Street, says Klaas: “People keep coming up with new ideas, and as long as there’s innovation out there, there’s going to need to be a place for people to produce those new ideas.”
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