PENDLETON — Superficially, the future of The Whiskey Inn doesn’t look promising.
The former motel’s sign featuring a cowboy slumped against a post is turned inside out. Whatever visual evidence the empty parking lot offers is confirmed by a sign at the entrance that states the motel is “permanently closed.”
But by the end of March, the 35-room motel, situated at 205 S.E. Dorion Ave., will be reborn as a facility that will serve the unhoused, a first of its kind in Eastern Oregon.
On Wednesday, March 10, the Oregon Community Foundation announced it was granting the Community Action Program of East Central Oregon a $1.3 million grant to purchase the former motel and turn it into a facility that will offer temporary housing to local homeless residents.
CAPECO CEO Paula Hall said she was both excited and a little overwhelmed to receive the grant, which the foundation established as a part of its Operation Turnkey program.
“It’s going to be quite the undertaking,” she said.
In the short term, Hall said CAPECO plans to run the building mainly as a shelter for the unhoused, a safe place where lodgers could socially distance themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Once Umatilla County is able to get the pandemic under control, Hall said the building will retain some rooms as a night-to-night shelter while also dedicating other rooms to transitional housing, a place where the unhoused can live for up to two years while they search for permanent housing.
“This is not a forever home,” she said.
Hall said CAPECO had initially identified another property for its project, but when another nonprofit notified CAPECO about The Whiskey Inn, officials saw plenty to like. Although it was slightly more expensive than their original target, the building was in better condition and its central location put it within easy walking distance of the Umatilla County Courthouse, Lifeways and other services.
Hall said CAPECO also likes that the motel is prominently featured in a high-traffic area, which it expects will discourage congregation and illicit activity.
Hall knows the motel’s location in the heart of Pendleton will spark scrutiny from neighbors and other residents who fear the facility’s presence will cause blight and illegal activity.
But Hall said CAPECO intends to continue to run the building like a motel, just with a shifting focus away from tourists and travelers and toward the unhoused. She added that the nonprofit will work diligently to make sure the building remains unblighted and will form a neighborhood committee to address concerns from nearby residents and businesses.
Hall said the new facility will be a good “first bite” at tackling the region’s homelessness issue, but leaders in the community will need to continue to address one of the issue’s main roots: a lack of affordable housing.