The following post will be the straight line of a joke where we get to hear the punch line five years later. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a conversation and series of meetings about the economic sustainability of Whidbey Island. Speculating about the future can rarely be anything more than educated guessing; and yet, that’s what we all have to do. So, here is a rather extemporaneous extrapolation of the environment for small towns, particularly like those on south Whidbey, about five years from now. Let’s see how frugal the world will be. I can already hear my future self laughing at me.
Let’s look five years back. This incarnation of this blog goes back that far. I didn’t realize that. The world was in the Great Recession (the Second Great Depression) and I was in the depths of my Triple Whammy. Hopefully, optimism would see us through. Housing prices were terrible, and I was about the enter the struggle to keep my house. People were avoiding the stock market even while Quantitative Easing was supporting economy but also the creation of wealth derived from wealth. Aside from the economic issues, most things would feel the same; right?
Things we take for granted, now. It is hard to see what has changed in the mainstream because each change is so gradual. Film, tape, mail, landlines, tv, newspapers are fading. People go into withdrawal if they can’t connect to the Internet (which is now so ubiquitous that we aren’t supposed to capitalize it anymore.) Shopping malls are no longer growing. Urbanization is claimed as a solution to many environmental and societal ills. Staycations have become common and don’t need to be justified. Who wants to deal with TSA?
Looking forward (and an ominous typo just went by – looming forward), requires many assumptions, which is why futurism is rarely accurate. I’ll assume there are no great economic, environmental, societal, or existential calamities. One asteroid can ruin your day, eh? I’ll also assume that we won’t be dealing with fifth forces of nature, aliens, digital singularities, or breakthroughs in consciousness. The last five years haven’t had them; let’s assume the next five don’t. (Part of me says, Ha!, but go ahead and continue.)
Five years from now
Urbanization has helped create a phenomenal real estate market in Seattle. I should know; I get to write about it. (Curbed Seattle) Seattle’s economy is growing faster than most because technologies are being advanced and accepted, established companies like Amazon are growing spectacularly (just check out the spectacle of their domed offices), and Silicon Valley has become so expensive that businesses and jobs have been moving here. Hiring has drawn so many people that Seattle can’t hold them all, nor can King County. Neighboring counties are now seeing median house price increases of over 20% annually. Unless Silicon Valley gets cheaper, or the Internet breaks, the trend is likely to continue. Right now, Whidbey’s real estate prices are relatively low; but if even a small fraction of new residents or displaced mainlanders decide to shop for houses on Whidbey, the prices could rise dramatically. Small supply, relatively easy access to the city, and non-negotiable growth limits like water and septic could drive prices into unsustainable territory. One response is to allow unconventional housing options to become more conventional. Tiny houses drop the price by lowering the square footage. House sharing divides the expenses, effectively turning some homes into boarding houses. Whidbey is an island, one that has surprisingly few, if any, houseboats. Rafts of neighborhoods could provide housing for the folks who can’t afford the land that would fit under a tiny house. At the same time, waterfront and view properties would head in the opposite direction, mimicking the wealthier islands. One EPA study reinforces the notion that the density won’t change, which suggests the housing will diverge between those who maintain the island and those who can afford luxurious homes. Island wealth and real estate tax revenue will probably increase.
Currently, tourism is a big business; which is necessarily very seasonal. There are plenty of service jobs in the summer, and a dearth for the other nine months. Great paychecks and tips for three months don’t look as rich when divided by four. There are a few other businesses on the south half of the island, but boat builders and the phone company can’t employ everyone. A large portion of the island commutes to the mainland because that’s where the jobs and the money are. That may change. Ten gigabit internet service is already being installed, far ahead of the rest of the nation. I know several people who work remotely from the island. For them, good upload and download speeds are vital. As the adoption and awareness of the high speed internet expands, some Seattle-ites may decide to relocate; and some commuters may realize it’s easier to work from home rather than the office – and they may be able to make the case because island speeds are higher than mainland office speeds. Switching commuters back to island workers means they spend less on commuting, they spend more on the island, and time wasted in traffic is traded for time invested in family and community. Coworks become important, as do businesses that provide the goods and services offices need. Talent gets concentrated rather than diffused. Whidbey can become a destination for clients who get to meet in more pleasant surroundings. I’ve seen that happen within my business. Come to Whidbey, relax, get some work done.
Buy local. That’s worth repeating. Buy local. Thanks to some advocates who kept out brand names and big box stores, Whidbey has an almost complete collection of stores, most of which are owned and run by locals. But, there’s a price to pay for shipping things to the island. Check prices on-island versus off-island and see a premium. Things that are built here, however, aren’t as likely to deal with that. As technology develops, 3-D printing has matured to the point that a few thousand dollars is enough to build a device that can create custom items within a few hours. It may take less time and money to download and print something than it does to take the ferry and drive to the mall. At the same time, things printed here can be shipped anywhere. One entrepreneur is doing this in 2016. By 2021 the capability may be so common that a printer is a natural part of a home, just as ink-jet printers were. More money flowing within island businesses makes the island more affordable and sustainable. The Organic Farm School has just started, and within five years will have added at least some inspired farmers and ranchers to the area.
Whidbey Island relies on ferries. Hopefully, the new terminal will be open by 2021, making it easier to get on and off the island, as well as into and back from the city. That change may not be as significant as the introduction of driverless vehicles. A taxi fleet is already being launched in Pittsburgh. A fleet of taxis picking up islanders and taking them to the ferry would free up a lot of parking lot space, reduce the number of cars on the road and in the waiting line (waiting for the ferry can stretch to three hours), and dramatically change an already supportive mass transit system. Bad news for taxi and bus drivers, though. With more virtual work going on, people may be more concerned with power and Internet outages than potholes. If the income bifurcates as the wealth may, more people may be relying on bicycles and whatever mass transit exists.
The fancy name is demographics, but the issue is people. Without people, the island gets to revert to nature; but that’s probably not going to happen in five years. Whidbey’s population is old. The last time I checked, I was the median age – and I’m collecting a pension. Granted, it is an early accelerated pension, but you can read those details throughout this blog. People define culture. Islands tend to create intentional communities. On the mainland, a person’s neighborhood may be decided by their job and commute. On islands and in small towns, people decide to live there and then figure out how to make it work. Retirees have an easier choice. Artists are passionate about picking their places. For decades, Whidbey has been a community that is a mix of retirees, commuters, artists, and others who found a place to lead an alternative lifestyle. Whidbey is going through a generational change, just like many small towns. Families who lived there for generations begin seeing the next generation look elsewhere. Older folks stay. Younger folks leave. Schools empty and hospitals get busy. As the older generation departs, taking a support network with it, younger people eventually move in. But in Whidbey’s case, the next generation may be less likely to be artists and such. They will be faced with affordability issues that if not resolved will require them to be more entrepreneurial, more concerned with income and expense than meditation and expression. The character of the community may change simply because choices that were available fifty years ago won’t be available in five years.
As I said, this is an extemporaneous list. The conversations we’ve been having about the introduction of 10 Gigabit Internet service prompted me to write this post today; but the topic is always on my mind. Technology is changing. My community is changing. Houses, schools, jobs, are all going to change as well. The changes in the next five years have the potential to be much larger than the changes from the last five years. High speed Internet may enable significant moves to affordability through jobs and shopping. Other, less technological initiatives can have large influences, too. New tax codes for farmers, new zoning regulations that allow tiny houses or houseboats, common meeting areas for nomadic workers can strengthen community and the economy simply by deciding to accept that the world is changing and peoples’ needs are changing. The personal choices for non-retirees, however, may be very similar to the same frugality that defines rural lifestyles. Don’t assume needs are taken care of. Respect them. Then, as resources allow, enjoy luxuries.
I enjoy playing with such ideas. As one friend put it; “How do you keep all that in your head?” It’s easy because I enjoy it. I’m also enough of a student of history to know that something else completely different will happen. I hope I’m right that in September of 2021 I’ll be laughing at my guesses because life turned out to be better than I could’ve imagined. Stay tuned.