Highway changes spell trouble for wineries

Promises of signs and access have yet to be fulfilled owners say, and business is hurting.



A road sign on Old Highway 12 mistakenly denotes the roadway as being "Vintage Loop." The highway designation was proposed earlier in the design phase for phase 6 of the new U.S. Highway 12, but later dropped. The Washington state Department of Transportation, which put up the sign, will be replacing the marker in the near future, Walla Walla County officials have said. (July 8, 2010)

WALLA WALLA -- Benefits of safety and commerce seem an ironic twist to winery operators along an eight-mile stretch of "the old highway 12."

North of Cougar Crest, Glencorrie, Skylite Cellars and several others, the new U.S. Highway 12 -- widened, realigned and celebrated Thursday as a safer roadway for travelers -- is killing business, some say.

Opened two weeks ago to traffic, the new stretch of highway between Walla Walla and Frenchtown has not only taken away the drive-by traffic, it's cut off connections for those who were destined for the wineries in the first place, said Skylite Cellars owner Cheryl Hodgins.

Access to her winery along the old highway at 25 Campbell Road has been blocked from the east and the west, and the connection from the new highway to the old one has yet to be completed. The winery's weekend traffic has consequently been cut off from about 200 visitors to zero, she said.

Washington State Department of Transportation officials say they are working with the affected wineries to provide signage and redirect traffic to the businesses. They say the lack of access is expected to be temporary while the connections are completed over the next two weeks.

Project Engineer Moe Davari said the main challenge is the intersection at Sudbury Road, which will serve as a feeder between the two roadways.

"We couldn't have rebuilt that intersection when the traffic was on the old highway 12," he said Thursday. "We had to make sure the new (highway) was completed."

But several business owners say the issue is deeper than that. Years in the making, the new highway alignment was always expected to take the commuter traffic from the old highway. But winery operators say they had been assured the switch wouldn't be made without proper signage, access and communication -- all with the acknowledgement that the wineries are as vital a piece to the economy as the trucks hauling goods on the highway.

"What was represented to us two or three years ago is not what's being done," Hodgins said. "I would never have built there knowing people couldn't get to me."

She and other winery operators believe the new highway should not have opened until the signage and connecting roads were complete.

"It's like opening a $30 million hospital without having any beds for the patients," Hodgins said.

The lack of traffic access is further exacerbated by the confusing road names, business operators say.

Original talks of renaming the old highway as "Winery Loop" or "Vintage Loop" to help wine consumers find their way were changed in favor of the "Old Highway 12" name. But a "Vintage Loop" sign was erroneously posted at the intersection with Spalding Road -- the new name for the former "Last Chance Road."

At the same time, the southern portion of the commonly known Sudbury Road that will be used as a feeder between the new and old highways will be designated as "Heritage Road."

"It's a confusing mess. The GPS systems will never figure it out," said Cougar Crest Winery owner Debbie Hansen, who still encounters delivery drivers befuddled by the change of her address from a few years ago.

"It's been Frenchtown Road for three years now and Mapquest still calls it Ireland Road," she said.

Though that connection has been complete, Hansen said visitors have taken awhile to adjust to the changing traffic pattern. She said her customers are starting to figure out how to reach her. That's especially been bolstered by the Department of Transportation's willingness to post orange signs last weekend telling drivers that businesses are still open on the old highway.

That's not the case for some of her neighbors, including Bunchgrass Cellars, which is also cut off on both sides.

"Nobody had any idea that there were going to be only certain roads open to connect the old highway and the new highway, and that you'd have to drive many, many miles down the road to find one," she said.

"We had customers who made it clear to Walla Walla before they realized what happened," she said. Three really dedicated ones came back on the old highway.

Hansen said Cougar Crest also has the benefit of having built its brand and following over 10 years in business.

Newer wineries, such as neighboring Glencorrie, have been harder hit. Owner Ronn Coldiron estimates his business is down 60 percent.

"Basically for people to find me has turned into an Easter egg hunt," he lamented.

He said winery operators along that stretch of highway met Tuesday to compare notes on the impact of the road change. He estimates the average loss of business among the group is 30 percent. Other winery operators attending the meeting were from Three Rivers and Reininger, among others. Many are trying to work together to secure more signage for their businesses. Coldiron said the roadway's designation as a scenic highway is restrictive on what exactly can be done. He said the wineries will need approval from Walla Walla County before those can be posted.

"We need fast cooperation," Coldiron said. "If this continues without any improvement, I'm dead. This is just not sustainable."

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


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment

Click here to sign in