A Washington state town had become listless. Then a bar came to town and everything began to change
In the southwest Washington town of Centralia, hard by a set of railroad tracks, stands the Olympic Club, famous as the place where the notorious train robber Roy Gardner was finally collared in 1921 after a series of brash heists and escapes from the law’s long but slippery arm.
By the time Mike McMenamin walked into the Olympic Club in the mid-1990s, it had fallen into disrepair — as had Centralia. Known as Hub City for its equidistant proximity to Seattle and Portland, Ore., “most everything had closed down or moved out of town in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” recalls Scott White, who grew up there. What remained in this “ghost town,” in White’s recounting, were “some pretty decent antique shops” and “some pretty seedy bars.” Small-town America, in other words, absent the Dream.
For the record:
10:30 a.m. July 9, 2018An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of Ethan Seltzer and Murray Cizon and identified Lewis & Clark College as Lewis & Clark University.
McMenamin had ferried some friends to Centralia to check out the al fresco gallery of a famous yard artist, Richard Tracy. Wandering onto Tower Avenue afterward, McMenamin recalls, “We saw a glint of glass and an old storefront and a beer sign, and I said, ‘Well, let’s stop.’”
Into the Olympic Club they walked.
“It was amazing and tattered,” says McMenamin, who soon learned that the property — which included an upstairs “railroad hotel” (there’s an Amtrak station behind it) and the adjacent New Tourist Bar — was for sale. The New Tourist Bar was founded by an early 20th century saloon proprietor named A.J. Forgues, who famously lobbied against his financial self-interest by proclaiming, “Don’t buy booze if your children need shoes.”
The lawyer handling the prospective sale of the property, Jack Cunningham, had an office a block away, “so we had to roll down there,” says McMenamin.
Cunningham’s brother was the famous dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was born in Centralia. McMenamin soon figured out that Jack had gone to school with his mother at Oregon State University. A rapport developed and it wasn’t long before McMenamin became the new owner of the Olympic Club.
“There was no strategy involved,” McMenamin, now 67, says of his purchase.
Nor has there ever been, he insists. But what McMenamin has sparked, haphazardly or otherwise, with the Olympic Club and several other Pacific Northwest properties, is the reinvigoration of blue-collar towns that had been all but abandoned by the global economy. Yet his efforts have not come without a handful of critics, particularly in Portland, the city that gave birth to both him and his enterprise.
McMenamin opened a pub, Produce Row, with his brother, Brian, just east of the Willamette River in Portland in the mid-'70s. In the years that followed, Mike would try his hand at delis and “wine experiences” and distributing beer and wine.
“I pretty much failed at that,” he says.
From there, he says he “got back into the little pub thing and tried to incorporate what I’d learned from the winery side, brewery side and an interest in distilling.” This venture would not turn out to be a failure. Instead, the seeds were sown for the McMenamins beer and lifestyle empire, a network of over 50 pubs, theaters, resorts, and hotels in Oregon and Washington that can aptly be described as Disneyland for drinkers.
Yet while the chain is viewed as a veritable cultural defibrillator for places like Centralia and Kalama, a sleepy riverside town in southwest Washington where McMenamins just opened its 11th hotel, the company’s relationship with Portland — where you can scarcely fling a Frisbee without hitting a McMenamins tap handle — is decidedly dualistic.
This dynamic can be neatly summed up in a YouTube video about life in Portland. Here, a cyclist talking to a friend on a phone can be heard saying, “I totally agree: McMenamins’ food and service sucks.” Later in the clip, that same cyclist is shown telling the same friend, “Yeah, yeah--I’ll see you at McMenamins at 5.”
“In my 20s, it felt like I had to make an effort to avoid winding up at one of their bars every week,” says local food writer Ben Waterhouse, who, back when he edited Willamette Week’s bar guides, “left out most McMenamins properties just because of their ubiquity.”
Murray Cizon, who moved to Portland in 1994 and now works at Lewis & Clark College, says he only goes to a McMenamins establishment “out of convenience” or when he has “family in from out of town who have come to expect McMenamins to be part of the Portland agenda.”
Yet even if frequenting McMenamins isn’t something they’re fond of personally, both Waterhouse and Cizon maintain a grudging respect for the enterprise. McMenamins has usefully opened attractive bars in alcoholic oases in southwest Portland and the surrounding suburbs. (“It’s either there or Applebee’s,” says Waterhouse.)
And when McMenamins took over the old Kennedy School in historically black northeast Portland, they opened its doors to the community, hosting discussions about race, whereas other businesses have blindly piggybacked on the neighborhood’s recent gentrification.
“All kinds of people use McMenamins for all kinds of different reasons,” says Ethan Seltzer, professor emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University.
This may be why, as Waterhouse willingly concedes, “When I complain about McMenamins, those things don’t seem to bother a lot of people. They’ve preserved some beautiful properties and not done anything really horrible to them. They do create these really incredible spaces, like the Baghdad Theatre and Crystal Ballroom. Even if you have no use for the bars or not-quite-good food or almost-acceptable beer, they’ve woven themselves into the city’s cultural life in a way that a chain that was just out to make money would not have done successfully.”
As for their ventures outside the Rose City, Seltzer feels McMenamins is unique in that they “kind of create a market when they go somewhere.” To this end, Waterhouse points to their Oregon properties in Forest Grove, McMinnville and Roseburg as examples of the chain’s willingness to go where few have gone before — at least in modern times.
“They opened a bar in Roseburg, which was a dying timber town,” says Waterhouse. “Now it has a pretty robust wine and beer industry.”
The company certainly helped resuscitate Centralia. “It’s getting better all the time; it’s very vibrant,” White says.
White, the onetime executive director of the Centralia Downtown Assn., is now heading up an extensive renovation of the city’s historic Fox Theatre, a 1,000-seat art deco venue which he envisions as the crown jewel of the area’s renaissance. He plainly admits that the Fox’s refurbishment would not be possible had Mike McMenamin not stumbled into the Olympic Club a couple decades ago after admiring Richard Tracy’s yard art.
Seely is a special correspondent.
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