Ever since a reporting trip to Washington D.C. a few years ago, I’ve begun using a soup analogy to assess a city’s bike-friendliness. A good bowl of soup, like a successful cycling city, requires many different ingredients, and just as importantly, the right people to blend them together. In D.C., after spending a few days cycling on their impressive protected bike lanes, my impression was that they had added many excellent ingredients to the soup, but the taste wasn’t quite right. It was like an inexperienced chef who knew where to buy the good ingredients, and was able to plop them in the pot — but wasn’t yet skilled enough at blending them all together into a tasty final product.
Here in The Dalles, to continue the soup analogy, the kitchen is full of chefs excitedly prepping ingredients, and there’s a lot of buzz about what they’ll create; but the pot isn’t even boiling yet.
I’ve met with several civic leaders in the past two days and I’ve gotten a very strong sense that it’s not a question of if, but when cycling will become a well-entrenched part of this city’s civic — and economic — identity.
The Dalles has had their share of economic turmoil in the past several decades. From the closure of their main employer (an aluminum plant) in the 1980s, its re-opening and then final closure in 2000, and then the recession. But for the most part, things are going pretty well in this town of about 14,000 people. But even with some positive economic signs, The Dalles isn’t out of the woods yet. They still lack a strong identity and economic engine that will power a real revitalization.
Yesterday I met Lisa Farquharson, president and CEO of The Dalles Chamber of Commerce. “The Dalles is still trying to fine our niche,” she shared as we toured the City in her SUV. “How can we pull people in? If we can do it with cycling, we’ll do that.”
Farquharson is just one part of a growing network of civic leaders here that are taking cycling seriously. Across the hallway from her office in the small building that houses The Dalles Chamber and Visitor’s Center sits Matthew Klebes. Klebes is the main street coordinator for The Dalles Main Street Program, an independent non-profit working to spur economic activity in the downtown district.
Next month, Klebes’ group will host a series of workshops to help local businesses become officially certified through Travel Oregon’s new Bike Friendly Business program. The Dalles is the first city in Oregon to embrace this idea and host its own workshops, a fact Klebes is quite proud of. “We want to have a discussion about how powerful this can be and how businesses can adapt to accomodate bicycles,” he said. Three businesses have already signed up for the program — a tea parlor, a fitness gym, and a paper/scrapbooking store.
Klebes is also working on a grant that would pay for about a dozen new bike racks downtown. Currently, The Dalles’ main streets are woefully bereft of bike racks, so hopefully a dozen is just the start. If all goes according to plan, the new racks will go in in May, along with The Dalles’ very first parklet, slated to go on E 2nd Street in front of a bakery and a music shop (see mock-up drawing below). There’s also talk of creating a designated park-n-ride location for day-trippers to park their cars while they’re out riding.
When it comes to making The Dalles more bike-friendly, Klebes says, “There’s been a buzz around town.” He points to the official “task squad” of volunteers that has stepped up to organize this month’s bike friendly business certification workshops.
The urgency around bicycling here comes from a variety of factors. It helps that their Mayor Steve Lawrence is a big believer in the power of bicycles. Another reason is the impending arrival of Cycle Oregon in September. That annual ride, which brings with it a traveling city of 2,500 bike lovers with plenty of spending money, has chosen The Dalles as the base camp for the start and end of their 2014 event. The other thing everyone here is talking about is the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. Currently complete from Troutdale to Cascade Locks, and from Hood River to Mosier, the Oregon Department of Transportation has just nine miles remaining to complete the project.
Once the HCRH is done (hopefully by the road’s 100-year anniversary in 2016), The Dalles will find itself at the start and end of one of the premier bicycling routes in country. Add in their existing cycling assets — the six-mile Riverfront Trail, some of the best road riding anywhere — and you begin see how many of the ingredients for success are starting to come together.
With so many things clicking for cycling in The Dalles right now, the business community hears opportunity knocking. And Klebes says it’s an opportunity many locals don’t want to pass up. Not this time. Klebes told me many people here feel like they passed up on an opportunity to embrace kiteboarding several years ago. That reluctance led the booming sport, and all of its associated economic impacts, to choose Hood River as its preferred home instead of The Dalles.
“Many people here see what happened with kiteboarding as a missed opportunity, and they see bikes as a second chance.”
— Stay tuned for more reporting from The Dalles. View more photos in the gallery.