"Walla Walla has changed..." This is something we hear from time to time by people who are put off by the wine industry and all that comes along with it.
Honestly, it is still full of the same friendly people, but only when you are willing to get involved, participate and put yourself out there. We have known a handful of people who move here and have a hard time making a true connection with the town, but far more have instantly become a part of the community and will always feel this is home. When residents move away for one reason or another, most can't wait to get back or will always feel a kinship with Walla Walla. People visiting from outside the area are amazed by the friendliness and openness of our community. We have traveled extensively and the warmth and acceptance we see in this town is nearly unrivaled. In the summer of 2015, the Gentlemen Of The Road was a huge platform for the town to showcase its charm, and people were blown away!
Granted, when things go wrong, you can't hide and you better expect people to still know everything. But for better or worse, you can't escape the hugs and sympathy. Sometimes you just want to go to the grocery without someone expressing sorrow for your loss.
Our family came here in 1858, and Kelli's arrived in town around a decade before. Both families have grown and fought to stay in town through the decades. We have succeeded and failed. Some have left, but seem to always return and create new opportunities. There are three of us brothers (all married Walla Walla girls), six aunts and uncles and a ton of cousins and extended family who all live here.
If you really dive into the demographics of the wine industry, it is truly an organic Walla Walla thing. It started with a number of local residents who had a passion for wine and were looking to diversify. Followed by dozens of other local families who were looking to branch out and find opportunities where there were few. Almost every other winery in town has management teams, winemakers or investors who have been part of Walla Walla for decades or generations. A solid number of winery owners and winemakers are retired or daylight at the Corps of Engineers. The wine industry has helped attract world renowned MD's to the hospitals and highly accredited professors to the colleges. WWCC is now ranked 1st amongst Community Colleges, country wide.
The town has a couple of the obligatory fast food chains and one Applebee's. Everything else is locally owned! Through the 1970's-80's downtown was drying up. The new Mall didn't thrive and is currently in ruins. The Eastgate Mall was barely holding on. Once the wineries started to take hold, a terrific group of citizens formed the Downtown Foundation. This organization set forth with some great plans to revitalize downtown and make it a functioning and thriving playground for visitors and locals alike.
People needed a reason to stay in town. It takes a minimum of 4,000 acres for one family to really make a living off of dry land wheat. Fewer if you can snag a pea contract, but that was boom or bust depending on the year. There are barely over 3,000 acres of grapes in the entire Walla Walla Valley. The canneries were going away long before the grapes came in and a number of supporting businesses were following them. Alfalfa seed farmers were getting their tails handed to them year in and year out. Apples were losing to Japan. Cherries would make big money every five years... Asparagus is highly labor intensive, as are the onions, and both fell victim to global pressure and the year round availability of quality produce.
The great thing is, we still have all these industries and commodities, but they are at a more sustainable scale. Wine grapes have gone in here and there, just like any other agricultural product. Small scale and with an eye on diversity and quality. There is a reason why Walla Walla is becoming recognized world wide, and it's not because it is an angry, yuppie town with commercialized restaurants and nationwide chains. When we were young, It used to be cool to go to the big city. Now people in the city get excited about visiting Walla Walla.
Walla Walla continues to reinvent itself. Honestly, it is regaining some of the glamour that it had back in the day.