Wallowa Renaissance

By Katy Nesbitt September 13, 2012 09:06 am


 There's a renaissance going on in the City of Wallowa; in the past two years each of Main Street's storefronts have filled except Shell's Mercantile. Soon, that too, might change.

Juanita Rolan is excited about the energy and changes going on all around her. She and others are looking at bringing Shell's back to life as an important part of the city's renewal.

“We are cleaning up our town and making it viable,” said Rolan.

Shell's closed more than three years ago. When logging and milling timber kept Wallowa bustling, Shell's sold more than groceries; it was a mercantile that sold boots, socks, clothes and a little bit of everything.

When the mill closed down, so did some of the local businesses. People moved away or commuted to other mills for work. But all is not dire in Wallowa despite a down timber economy and the obvious loss of dozens of jobs.

Kindergarten enrollment has been up for the past few years. Shuttered stores have come back to life. Brand new businesses pop up every few months and Integrated Biomass has taken over the D.R. Johnson mill site; providing jobs and a place to process wood products locally.







Rolan and Deb Reth are part of a community effort to bring life back to Shell's. A year and a half ago, Reth and friends, with support of the Wallowa Methodist Church, opened the Resale Shop offering gently used clothes and household items. The profits are granted to community projects like Meals on Wheels and the Wallowa Library.

The building next door was also rented to store larger items donated to the Resale Shop. A staff of volunteers keep the place running and the shelves and racks are full.

This summer Reth bought the Telephone Building across the street. In the front, local artists display their paintings, pottery, blown glass, and the like. In the back, Rolan and Reth, along with four other gardeners, prepare their produce for a list of customers that includes all of Wallowa's restaurants and other commercial customers in the county.

This summer, these two firebrands, along with Peter Ferre' and a dozen others, started a community garden at the River House and a farmers market that runs each Saturday.

A lot of Wallowa's transformation is about local food. A vision for the Shell's building is to run it as a food hub and lease space to a variety of food producers to process meat, acidified foods like jams, jellies and pickles, and baked goods.

Sheri Stuart from Oregon Main Street has helped nudge Enterprise along with its revival and is now working with citizens of Wallowa to help them focus their energies.

“The local food movement is really blossoming in Oregon,” said Stuart.

Kuri Gill from the Oregon Cultural Trust applauded the work already done.

“Wallowa County already has great tourism, local food is a great second marketing strategy,” said Gill.

Gill said there are tax credits available for building owners to make older buildings more functional. Listing on the National Register of Historic Places also opens doors to facade grants to spruce up the outside of buildings 50 years and older.

The tax credits don't just apply to historic renovations, said Gill. Upgrading electrical systems, roofs, and kitchens are all viable projects.

Gill and Stuart said that Wallowa has a lot to work with considering its historic buildings. They encouraged community organizers to maintain the local character when planning the future.

Establishing the city as a “certified government” was another suggestion offered to pave the way for noncompetitive grants that help preserve buildings, educate the community, and promote tourism.

Reth's vision for the local food and textile market at the Telephone Store is to not only provide a space for locals to hawk their wares, but to learn food processing and even sewing.

Like many people in rural, Eastern Oregon, Reth has her winter project to-do list when the gardens are put to bed. Licensing the Telephone building's kitchen is a top priority so that it can be used for commercial baking.

Though Wallowa's renaissance is a community-wide effort, Reth credits the Methodist Church and its mission to alleviate hunger as part of the impetus behind a lot of the work.

“Little churches can make big differences,” said Reth.

And the work of a couple dozen people can transform a small town, building by building, block by block.