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Joseph: From Economic Depression To Arts Powerhouse


Images from Joseph, the town where craft, leadership, and hospitality came together to leverage culture for growth.

What’s the artsiest spot east of the Cascades? You could make a pretty good case for Joseph — a stunningly scenic town of about 1,000 people at the base of the towering Wallowa Mountains. It’s in the northeast corner of the state, four hours from Boise, nearly six from Portland. That’s enough distance to keep the place from getting swamped by casual visitors.

With a burgeoning bronze industry, a thriving strip of galleries and a vibrant literary scene, Wallowa County hits way above its weight class when it comes to arts and culture. But it hasn’t always been that way.

“It was kind of a run-down town,” said Shelley Curtiss, who has lived in Joseph for more than thirty years. “Probably 70 percent of the storefronts on main street were vacant. The paper in the windows was so old it was giving way. It was the poster child for economic depression.”

Curtiss has had a lot to do with the arts in Joseph over the years. As a sculptor, she has sold pieces around the country. She’s served as city councilor, mayor and president of the Wallowa County Arts Council. And she also worked for the industry that really got things rolling in Joseph.

Parks Bronze Foundries is working on one of its biggest sculptures yet: a 25-foot-tall humpback whale.  The whale is so big is was cast in pieces, including 14-foot fins. "We’re just trying to put this together," Parks says. "There’s a water feature that goes inside and some stainless steel armature. It should be as tall as the peak of our roof when it’s done — 25 feet."

Parks Bronze Foundries is working on one of its biggest sculptures yet: a 25-foot-tall humpback whale.  The whale is so big is was cast in pieces, including 14-foot fins. “We’re just trying to put this together,” Parks says. “There’s a water feature that goes inside and some stainless steel armature. It should be as tall as the peak of our roof when it’s done — 25 feet.”

Reuben Unrau/Oregon Public Broadcasting

Bronze is the bedrock of Wallowa County’s arts transformation. Steve Parks from Parks Bronze Foundry in Enterprise (ten minutes down the road from Joseph) moved to the county to work at the first foundry, Valley Bronze, which opened in 1982 in a closed sawmill, before branching off to open his own foundry. At its peak, Wallowa County had five foundries.

“It was the attention to detail and the quality,” Parks said in explanation to the area’s unlikely success in the industry. “Back when I started, there were just a few commercial foundries for fine art. There were four basic chemicals and classic looking finishes. We broke into full color. They knew about us in NYC during the New York art expo. They see your tag, and they see it’s from Joseph, Oregon and they say, ‘Wow, that’s where the good patinas come from.’”

Artists were already attracted to the area because of the natural beauty and the foundries. Then Curtiss helped Valley Bronze open a gallery on Main Street, which planted the seed for more.

“Pretty soon,” Curtiss says, “We don’t have any room on Main Street. It’s becoming pretty prime property.”

Curtiss ran for city council and then was appointed mayor, and she started thinking about how to take it up the next step.

“I said, we could have our whole main street re-done if we wanted to. We could have curbs! We could have storm drains! We could have real sidewalks!  I mean seriously! We had none of those.”

So Curtiss approached city council in 1994 about some money in the hotel tax account. First she asked for $500 to pay a grant writer. Council balked. Then she asked for $500 if she could get a match from downtown merchants and got the green light.

“I think it took me about 30 seconds to get the other $500,” Curtiss recalled.

Visitor Spending at Wallowa County

The main street merchants’ appetite for improvements was so strong, they agreed to tax themselves $10,000 a year for five years to amass a $50,000 match that would open them up to funds from governmental agencies and groups like Northeast Oregon Economic Development District. The pot of money grew to $3.8 million, and over the next six years, the city refurbished the road with angle parking, put in pavers, buried the overhead power lines, and landscaped the sidewalks with planter boxes, trees, and donated bronze sculptures on almost every block.

“I remember driving back into town for the first time and it was like seeing Joseph for the first time,” said Joseph native Will Roundy, who was in college at the time and now owns Beecrowbee on Main Street. “There is this view of the mountains that you never got. It was kind of incredible to see it like that.”

Since Main Street’s remodel in 2000, visitor spending has gone up in Wallowa County from over $18 million to over $26, and the number of jobs in the arts, entertainment and recreation has climbed from 95 to 133, according to Travel Portland.

Visitor spending in Wallowa County has grown from $16.5 million a year in 2000 to $26.5 million now. "I see it getting busier and busier every year," says beecrowbee owner and soapmaker Will Roundy of Joseph's economy. "My downtime is shorter and shorter every year. For businesses on Main Street, it's been great." Roundy is one of several locals who returned after college to start business.

Visitor spending in Wallowa County has grown from $16.5 million a year in 2000 to $26.5 million now. “I see it getting busier and busier every year,” says beecrowbee owner and soapmaker Will Roundy of Joseph’s economy. “My downtime is shorter and shorter every year. For businesses on Main Street, it’s been great.” Roundy is one of several locals who returned after college to start business.

Aaron Scott/Oregon Public Broadcasting

Joseph, once just a grocery stop on the way to Wallowa Lake, became a destination of its own.

Not that everyone approved.

“There was a big discrepancy between the people who wanted to keep it like it was, but that wasn’t an option because that part of the economy had fallen away, logging and all that,” Roundy said. “It basically divided the town in half. It was a real battle. And now that it’s done and it’s been here, people don’t remember anything else.”

Although some tension remains between Joseph and the more conservative surrounding county, it can’t be reduced to easy stereotypes.

Arts, Entertainment And Recreation Job Growth In Wallowa County

OPB

The loggers and the farmers here, a lot of their kids are working in the foundries, because their kids learned how to weld on the ranch,” said Rich Wandschneider, who manages the Josephy Library and has been involved in everything from opening the Enterprise bookstore to starting the Fishtrap writers conference. “And it turned out one kid had a little artistic talent and it turned out somebody could write, and they’re all doing it because their proximity to the arts here. But it was an organic thing.”

One of the biggest recent developments in Joseph’s arts landscape was the opening of the Josephy Center for Arts & Culture, which hosts all kinds of stuff - exhibitions, classes, concerts, community events, artist residencies, private rentals.

The Josephy Center for Arts and Culture has become an anchor on the north end of Joseph.

The Josephy Center for Arts and Culture has become an anchor on the north end of Joseph.

Reuben Unrau/Oregon Public Broadcasting

A big log building at the north end of town, it was originally built as a bank, but sat empty for years, along with most of that side of town.

Then five years ago, a group of artists got it in their minds that the building would make a great arts center and got a grant to do a feasibility study.

“The results of that showed that we could run an arts Center here in Wallowa county and make ends meet,” said Ann Stevens, “but we couldn’t afford to buy the building and we couldn’t afford a debt service.”

They tried for years to find a donor to buy it. Just when they were considering quitting, Stevens got a small inheritance. “And just at that moment, Community Bank called and said, you know that building that’s been on the market for so long that you been but trying to buy for an arts Center — it had been on the market for $700,000,” Stevens recalled, “they said we foreclosed on the owners and would like you to make us an offer. Well I said I know it has a $400,000 mortgage and I only have $250,000. And they said make us an offer. And I did.”

As plans to open were ramping up, the center was offered the personal library of the prominent Wallowa County writer Alvin Josephy, who spent a lot of years promoting art and culture with a focus on Nez Perce Indians. The founders chose to name the center after him.

The Josephy Center takes a broad view of arts and culture. It hosted a collections exhibition — think ceramic dogs, violins, and tractor seats — a show dedicated to all things horses: paintings, photos, sculpture.

“The year of the horse we had amazing sales — people were going crazy,” said executive director Cheryl Coughlin. “I think having us here, there are people collecting who have never collected art.”

The center has finished its first three years in the black. The budget is now close to $200,000, and they’re currently sketching out a capital campaign to raise enough money to buy the building from Stevens and enlarge it to include a ceramics studio and offices.

And its impact doesn’t stop at its doors. “It’s kind of sparked things,” said Stevens, adding that since the Josephy Center opened, the science nonprofit Wallowology, a coffee shop, and the Josephy Days Rodeo have moved down to that previously sleep side of town. “You just see different nonprofits and different businesses saying: you know, if they can do that at the Josephy center with basically no money, why can’t we do it? And they give it a try.”

And the people of Joseph aren’t not stopping there. Now, Curtiss and a federal grant writer named Lynn Craig convinced the city council to designate Joseph as the state’s first Arts and Cultural District. They hope it will help them apply for national grants, although for now it’s effect is limited to a sign at the beginning of town that says “Enjoy the Arts in Josephy.”

“That sign for us is a reminder not just to new people driving through our community to recognize that we hope they enjoy the arts and visit the galleries,” said Curtiss. “The other part is a reminder to the residents who live here: often times there can be a paradigm shift in a community.”

Listen to this week’s State of Wonder for more case studies from Tieton and Burns of small towns leveraging arts and culture as part of their development strategies.

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