Secret pending sale clouds historic Alpenrose Dairy future
Mike Workman, 72, remembers going to see a Little League ball game at the Alpenrose Dairy almost 30 years ago. The following year, at another game there, he suggested facility improvements and soon found himself labeled "site manager," a position with no pay.
Workman, who is retired, has helped out on the grounds ever since.
"There's so many things you can do to prepare and help the dairy," he said. "I love giving back to them, because of what they do for the entire community."
Workman is one of many Oregonians dismayed that Alpenrose and the kid-friendly complex it anchors soon may be sold, potentially meaning an end to the ball fields there, the midget car-racing track, the bike-racing velodrome, the 600-seat opera house, the western-themed Dairyville Village — and potentially, the dairy itself.
Weeks before the news broke publicly, Workman heard about it from a member of the family. "Your heart drops," he said.
Last week, three siblings — great-grandchildren of the man who first bought the property in 1891 — sued the older generation, their aunts, to block an alleged plan to sell the property. The three siblings say their aunts' intent is to shut down all community activities at the complex immediately, and that the dairy, with its 150 employees, would close in the next year or two —allowing 52 acres of prime southwest Portland land to be sold for development.
Now, with the lawsuit pending, the two family factions are fully lawyered up and ready to go to court. The battle will be one part legal, one part public relations, as the lawsuit has sparked a community outcry, including a petition to "Save Alpenrose Dairy" that as of Sunday boasted more than 3,200 signatures. And others hope local officials will intervene.
On Sunday, Stuart Conser, 65, took advantage of the sunny brisk day to walk around the complex snapping photos with his smartphone of the Dairyville storefronts, the midget car racers and the ball fields. His parents used to bring him there as a boy, he said, and he wanted to capture the memories.
He said it was too bad some of the land hadn't been deeded to the city years ago. He hopes that still could happen. "I think the city should step in, at least to negotiate."
Nearby, midget car racers Shawn Ball and his 12-year-old daughter, Morgan, were standing outside the midget racing track as a helmeted 5-year-old boy zipped around it in what looked like a go-kart with a roll cage.
Ball, president of Portland Quarter Midget Racing Association, said the track is the only such track in Oregon, and some nearby states don't have any — explaining why races draw as many as 200 families. They come "from California to Canada," he said, adding the track will be hard to replace.
"We don't know if we have a season, a year, two years. Families have invested thousands in new equipment."
Alpenrose is located off Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway at 6149 S.W. Shattuck Road, a short drive from downtown Portland, not far from Beaverton.
Unlike the average working dairy, it's spotted with big yellow "Children at Play" warning signs and old-fashioned stenciled signs pointing families to places like "Dairyville" and the ice cream parlor.
In 1891, Florian Cadonau began delivering milk to downtown Portland. His son, Henry, opened Alpenrose in 1916 with his wife, Rosina; it was named for a Swiss flower to honor their heritage. Their kids, Carl and Anita, expanded the dairy, with Anita marrying into the Birkland family.
In the 1950s, according to family lore, Carl built the ball fields to keep his own kids out of Rosina's rose gardens. He built Dairyville, too, offering family activities and fun that continue today, including the opera house used by local schools and theater companies, model railroad clubs and other features.
The midget track went up soon thereafter. The velodrome for bike-racing followed.
Carl's son, Carl Jr., ran the business for a while, and Rod Birkland took over after him.
The community activities have continued, including a 4-H youth farming chapter and seasonal activities like Christmas in Dairyville and an Easter egg hunt.
Many locals have memories of touring the facility and milking a cow, followed by a homemade cookie from Rosina's kitchen.
Meanwhile, user groups have become intertwined with Alpenrose, their organizers becoming friends with the family and employees, and the facility has become central to their groups' existence.
Mike Murray, a cofounder of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, said Oregon has about 10 percent of the bike racers in the country, and the velodrome is one reason for that disproportionate share. He said well over 1,000 people rely on it not just to compete but to socialize and exercise, many of them on a weekly basis.
He was echoed by Chuck Kenlan, who heads the bicycle group.
"Shutting down the Alpenrose Velodrome would be devastating. It's one of very few velodrome tracks in North America ... It would take years to get another velodrome built in the Portland area."
Cathy Workman, Mike's wife, volunteers with the Little League Softball World Series that has called Alpenrose home for more than 20 years. She started the "Save Alpenrose Dairy" effort on Change.org not long after the news went public.
"It's heartbreaking," she said. "I wish that the sisters could understand what it means to the community, how we all feel about Alpenrose."
So embedded has Alpenrose become in its community that the Hayhurst neighborhood that surrounds it just last year put dairy-themed sign-toppers on its street signs to honor the business.
Janet Hawkins, president of the Hayhurst Neighborhood Association, calls Alpenrose "an amazing asset and resource for all of Portland, not just the Hayhurst Neighborhood. The Cadonau family has been wonderful."
She and others in Hayhurst thought the future was bright for Alpenrose after it bought out the assets of Sunshine Dairy last year.
"We were really excited that Alpenrose was going to take over the other dairy and keep people employed. They pay a living wage and that's a big deal in this economy ... We were all thinking, 'Hey, the dairy's going to be here forever.'"
Now, she says, "The neighborhood association will fully support the family that wants to maintain the dairy. Their community presence is huge for people."
Dairy is changing
The situation is more complicated than a family dispute.
The economics of dairy have changed, observers say. Once a full-fledged dairy farm, Alpenrose now strictly processes milk that's brought in via tanker truck from other farms, turning it into homogenized product in cartons, or making cottage cheese, sour cream or seasonal eggnog.
With large customers gaining clout in the dairy market, many of Alpenrose's local competitors are gone. Instead, chains like Walmart and Albertson's have their own dairies supplying the store brand.
Not only that, but things have changed for the Cadonau and Birkland families as well. Several years ago, an arrangement franchising and supplying Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores in the Pacific Northwest ended, cutting into profits and trimming the dividends received by family members.
And as the number of Cadonau and Birkland descendants has grown, the number among them with strong ties to the dairy has shrunk. Only a few family members today work on the farm.
Wild card in the wings
Meanwhile, in the wings lurks the potential buyer, who has not been revealed by either side.
Sources with knowledge of the potential deal, however, indicated to the Portland Tribune that the firm in question is Smith Brothers Farms — a Puget Sound dairy that relies on its community image and home delivery to give it an edge in the highly competitive dairy industry.
Whether the wave of publicity sparked by the siblings' lawsuit could affect the firm's interest in Alpenrose is unknown.
Chief Executive Officer Dustin Highland, other Smith Brothers executives and marketing representatives have not responded to several Tribune phone calls asking about the pending Alpenrose purchase.
But even if the buyer is a dairy like Smith Brothers, that doesn't mean they'll keep the Alpenrose processing facility and its 150 jobs running over the long term.
A buyer could be looking to purchase Alpenrose's book of business and relationships with local stores, observers said, providing a beachhead into the Oregon market.
Tami Kerr, executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, said she could not speculate on the buyer, whoever it is, or their motive. But her members, who raise and milk dairy cows, hope the Alpenrose facility stays open.
"It would be beneficial to Oregon farmers to have more processors and to have processors that are buying directly from Oregon producers," she said.
Mike Workman said he also doesn't know who the buyer is, but prevailing wisdom is that it is a dairy, and "they would keep the Alpenrose name for one to two years, and then who knows what happens after that?"
In the meantime, the uncertainty has a community on edge.
"Nobody knows what's going on here," Workman said. "That's the bad part."
Southwest Community Connection Editor Bill Gallagher contributed to this article.