Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Community in Transition

A recent letter to the editor in our local paper expressed concern that the burgeoning wine industry and influx of wine tourists was threatening the historical culture and values of our community. 

I don’t know that it’s a threat, but the culture and values of the community are changing, and the wine industry has something to do with it.  Having said that, I suppose the historical culture and values of the place depends on what era one wants to draw from.  In the early and mid 19th century we were an army fort and trading post amongst the resident tribes with whom we lived more at war than in peace.  Not too many years later we were the supply center for prospectors headed into the gold fields of Idaho.  Successful miners were separated from their take on the return trip by the bars and houses of prostitution that lined the main drag.  Law enforcement in those days was problematic, often by vigilante guns and ropes.  

Becoming a civilized town of farmers and ranchers in the late 19th and early 20th century, we also acquired the new state penitentiary as the consolation prize for not being chosen as the capital.  Churches, schools, two new colleges, and other signs of respectfulness did not, however, push out all the whore houses.  The last one didn’t close until the early 1960s.  WWII brought an Army Airforce Base and everything that goes along with it.  Downtown prospered, yet only a few decades later businesses had closed and it took on a shabby appearance.  A new mall on the outskirts threatened to kill it altogether.

A few forward thinking people turned that around about the same time the wine industry began to take hold.  The mall no longer exists, and the award winning downtown is booming.  Yes, there are wine tasting shops all over the place.  There are also a variety of terrific places to eat, interesting boutiques, and several new hotels as well as a beautifully restored old hotel.  B&Bs have become big business for some people.  So what exactly is being threatened?

A generation of farmers, ranchers, bankers and other established community leaders have been displaced by a new generation that is no longer under their benevolent, patriarchal control.  Residents that do not trace their lineage to pioneers outnumber those who do.  Church attendance is down, and they are no longer the center of social life.  The country club struggles to recruit new members.  In migration is almost all Hispanic, and many are now well established second and third generation.  Very little of the 1950s remains, but I suspect that is the era to which many turn to to find what they call historical culture and values. 


It is true that we are a community in transition, but a quick tour of our history illustrates that we always have been.  What will the future hold?  I’ll hazard a few guesses.  Population will grow slowly, if at all, because we do not have enough water to supply a large and rapidly growing city.  Some working class folks will be forced to find housing in surrounding towns because they will be priced out of the local market.  We will learn to tolerate frequent wine tourists and seasonal residents in their McMansions.  The colleges and hospitals will increasingly influence public policy.  Farmers and ranchers will continue to be respected and honored as the backbone of our culture, even if most of us have never been on a farm or ridden a horse.  The rodeo and county fair will celebrate them with more popularity than ever.  Finally, our Blue Mountains will begin to attract a greater number of urbanites who want an accessible wilderness like experience for a weekend or two each year.  

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The question is transition to what? Sure, there's a boom downtown, but real family income is still well below the state average, and more kids than not get government subsidized breakfast and lunches at school. More tasting rooms and restaurants aren't necessarily a bad thing, but are they accurate indicators (among others) of a healthy community? I'm not so sure. Real estate remains pricey in Walla Walla and when was the last time a major employer decided to move there vs. bigger towns closer to the major interstates. The wine industry has been like icing on a stagnant cake...it has given Walla Walla a nice look and more places for people with disposable income to eat at, but underneath the icing, it seems to be stagnating and it really wouldn't take much -- a crunch at Whitman and Walla Walla U, for example, precipitated by parents no longer willing to pay their high-priced/low value tuitions -- to push it over the edge. Just my two cents.

Cheers,
Mickey Goodson

Country Parson said...

Thanks for your comment Mickey. Welcome to the conversation, I'm glad you're here.

Real family income is down. WW has always been below the state average, but the problem goes deeper than that and extends nation wide. I have some thoughts on it, and you can read them in an earlier post on minimum wage if you want.

I don't think tasting rooms as such are an indicator of health in the community, but they are indicators of the value of retail rental space, and they do generate revenue for the community that would otherwise not be generated.

Which brings me to to the question of icing on a stagnant cake. What does that mean? The vertically integrated wine industry creates substantial value added to our ag production, and I'm hopeful it spurs ideas on how to do the same with other crops.

High priced tuition? It sure is. Low value? I don't buy that. Both schools are highly rated, especially by their alums.

With those thoughts aside, tell me about what kind of community you would like to see WW become over the next decade or two.

CP