Over the past fifteen years, Walla Walla County and the City of Walla Walla have experienced significant economic growth in tourism. In particular, that growth can be credited to the rapid expansion of a relatively young and now world renowned wine industry. The small town ambiance, the appeal of the culinary experience, the rejuvenation of the downtown, the sightseeing and outdoor recreation, art, history and museums, three colleges and, and the overall quality of life, also play important roles in Walla Walla’s success. However, few will disagree that the growth of the 120 wineries has basically put Walla Walla on the map.
Wine tourism by itself is now estimated to bring in well over $100 million to the local economy. While the focal point and key beneficiary of wine tourism has been the over 120 wineries in the Valley, wine tourism has also meant a doubling in lodging revenues and the significant expansion of culinary businesses, the arts, and retail shopping. Even during the five-year period from 2008 to 2013, when much of the U.S. suffered significant downturns and economic hardship, the Walla Walla Valley maintained relative stability and overall long-term economic growth.
Although the City of Walla Walla’s economy is a shining example of small town and rural economic success, the community’s pride in its quality of life and prosperity has been somewhat tarnished in recent years by homelessness, gang activity, substance abuse, and growing mental health issues. During the summers of 2013 and 2014, the city started to show signs of some of the ills faced by large cities throughout the U.S., including gang shootings, panhandling, public drug use and drunkenness. Some are now concerned that the City of Walla Walla’s economic prosperity and growing social issues will clash. These social issues have not only become more obvious to local residents, but appear to now be noticed by some visitors who have travelled long distances to Walla Walla to experience the City’s much talked about high quality of life and small town ambience.
A series of incidents in downtown Walla Walla in the spring and early summer of 2014 caused an increase in complaints to the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce about the presence of people occupying downtown streets and parks. Community leaders held meetings to address the situation. These ad hoc meetings included members of the general public, representatives of many downtown businesses, the Downtown Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce, the Christian Aid Center, the Community Network, Walla Walla Valley Transit, Catholic Charities, the United Way of Walla Walla, Lincoln School, Whitman College, the Blue Mountain Action Council, the City of Walla Walla, the Walla Walla Police Department, the Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Department, Tourism Walla Walla, and the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. Some merchants expressed a great deal of concern about the financial impacts on their businesses in the form of property damage and lost sales created by people who were occupying downtown parks, primarily Heritage Park, which is located on Main Street between Colville and Spokane Streets. Merchants claimed these occupiers were driving shoppers away from their businesses through aggressive panhandling, loud and threatening behaviors, and other illicit activities.
Community leaders designed early meetings to create a forum for open discussion of the downtown situation while brainstorming about possible solutions. These meetings were well attended and generated a good deal of animated discussion and a variety of potential solutions. However, it became clear that there was a lack of factual data available about the downtown situation as a whole and specifically about the suggested financial impacts.
To better understand the severity and nature of the downtown situation and overcome this dearth of information, attendees recommended to the community leader committee that a study be conducted to evaluate the financial impacts on downtown merchants and to better understand the downtown state of affairs.
Download the Downtown Heritage Park Study Report.