Project would convert old Humane Society thrift store into 'The Village'

The project would convert the old Humane Society thrift store into 'The Village,' filled with tasting rooms, specialty shops and a restaurant.

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The Village.

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The opposite side of Main Street reflects from the windows of The Village "A great wine experience a cooperative of wineries and shops offering the best of Walla Walla" in the old Blue Mountain Humane Society Thrift Store building on Main Street.

WALLA WALLA -- The most ambitious idea for a tasting room yet brews inside the dust-riddled warehouse of a building at 207 E. Main St.

Inside the 23,000-square-foot space, once home to the Blue Mountain Humane Society Thrift Store, businessman Craig Keister envisions rows of satellite wine-tasting rooms interspersed roughly every third space with nonwine entities -- a chocolatier, a cheesemaker, a coffee roaster, a brewer, a deli, you name it.

He sees a first-class restaurant on the second floor -- after, of course, refinishing the floors, sandblasting the brick, replacing the glass blocks with windows looking over Main Street and building a kitchen.

On the main floor, integrated with the tasting rooms and other businesses, he sees a haven for art-lovers. He wants to move the staircase from the middle of the entryway to the eastern side of the building. He wants to create a lobby, anchored by a sculpture, maybe with a water feature. Art would be displayed on the walls of the individual tasting rooms and the walls that separate them.

He wants to refurbish the back end of the building, once an automotive dealership in the early 1900s, so the view from Rose Street is as pleasant as it is on Main. In an even larger vision, he'd love to partner with the railroad so the tracks that run along the edge of the property could be beautified and incorporated as part of the attraction.

Walking distance from a cluster of hotels and inns, the site he calls "The Village" would be one-stop shopping for local residents and visitors, bringing wineries and the businesses that compliment them under one roof.

Monthly rent for wineries is $700, plus one bottle of wine for promotional tastings. Utilities are paid. Keister, owner of neighboring antique shop Mandrakes, believes the affordable rent could attract newcomers who don't have the money to open their own tasting room, as well as established wineries looking to branch out.

But will they come?

In the 10 years that Walla Walla's wine industry has exploded, similar plans have been proposed on a smaller scale without getting off the ground. One was the proposed Garden City Plaza on Alder Street, equipped for about a dozen wineries that would share tasting space.

Elio Agostini, executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, said The Village would be a welcome addition to Main Street.

"There's no question the wine industry has helped retail and tourism. It would be wonderful to get it out of the dream stage and into reality," Agostini said.

"For uptown Main Street if that was there it would be a huge plus for us. Can it work? I don't know. But is it a positive? Absolutely."

He acknowledges one roadblock could be that winery owners work hard to create an individualized identity that could become more homogenized in a village atmosphere. Some may fear consumers would bypass the wineries they've established in rural pockets, old airplane hangars, refurbished barns and destination structures.

But Keister, a former professional baseball player and retired police officer, has seen it done before. He also sees it as a way to offer a centralized location for folks who might not otherwise visit the other tasting rooms.

Keister approached Kurt Fisher of Seattle-based Gibraltar Investment Property Solutions, which owns the building, after he was inspired by a similar concept he saw in the Napa Valley.

Yountville's "V Marketplace," once called "Vintage 1870," features upscale specialty shops, galleries, restaurants, a wine-tasting cellar and a hot air balloon company under the roof of the historic, 139-year-old Groezinger Winery complex, according to a description on the operation's Web site.

Keister believes a similar approach could work in the Walla Walla Valley. The under-one-roof concept has been a success for local food and wine-tasting events, such as Feast Walla Walla and the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance's Vintage Walla Walla.

He said having tens of wineries together could help bring more attention to individual wineries.

"One of the things that's been a problem for every small business since the beginning of time is how do I get people through my door," Keister said.

The cooperative-style operation would be a destination in and of itself, he believes. Under his management, The Village would offer initial yearlong leases. The operation would provide glass busing, washing and supplying to the winery tenants, as well as secure storage for wine. A wine compliance specialist would also staff the operation. A shipping room would be supplied, as would a shared office space for faxing, Internet and general business needs.

Keister has reached out to potential tenants through e-mails and telephone calls. Several have shown enthusiastic interest, he said. But many ask the same question: "Who else is coming?"

The biggest challenge Keister sees to the project is timidity, which he had hoped would subside in time for a May opening. He knows the target date is ambitious, especially at such an early point in the project. But he is determined to help convert the property into a destination that will turn the Main Street spot into a new hub for some of the community's hottest commodities.

"It's a great project. It's a local project, and it's going to get done," Keister said.

"This is one of those times when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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