Building blocks of a sustainable island economy | Guest column
May 8, 2012 · Updated 12:47 PM
By Gary Anderson
Recently my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting the San Juan Islands with the Road Scholar Program through Skagit Valley College.
Having worked for 25 years as a regional economic development consultant in many different North American and overseas locations, I was particularly intrigued by the economic structure of the Islands. Because the islands have limited direct economic connections with the mainland, I wondered if this region had the potential to build a sustainable economy for the future.
As economic consultants, when we talk about a sustainable regional economy, we mean one that can provide living wages and a desirable quality of life for a population at least the size of the current one, so that residents won’t be forced to choose between earning a living and staying in the region.
The challenge always is to provide this standard of living by building on the region’s existing attributes without any long-term depletion of the resources of the region. That’s particularly difficult when a regional economy is geographically isolated from the larger economy.
During the few days we spent visiting San Juan, Orcas and Lopez Islands, and hearing from historians, anthropologists, farmers, naturalists, government officials, and other professionals who live there, I became convinced that this region can have a healthy economic future, and one that will require few changes in current attitudes, regulations, or strategies.
During our visit we learned that this economy now relies primarily on tourism, offering a laid-back quality of life, natural beauty, outdoor recreation, and an island culture that is attractive to visitors. With those attributes, it is also now becoming a desirable location for retirees, especially those with above-average education and above-average incomes.
This source of economic activity could easily outstrip tourism in the future and would be desirable, since it is less resource-intensive and less seasonal than tourism alone.
However, the effort to attract retirees is not without its own challenges. These retirees will demand more than the current natural advantages of the region, its well-developed cultural life and its strong creative arts community.
They will also need high-quality health services, a solid information technology infrastructure, as well as a good pool of educated service workers with skills in everything from health care and construction to recreation and culinary arts.
Supplying these services can be an excellent source of employment for regional residents, but sustaining these residents in turn will require affordable housing, good primary and secondary education, and other support services. The islands have made some steps in this direction, but the efforts will need to be expanded.
Having a defined goal to justify these efforts may make it easier to gain the necessary support for the initiatives.
Based on my experience in other regions, I’m convinced that the San Juan Islands can succeed in building a healthy, sustainable economy around the concept of attracting retirees as well as tourists.
Based on my brief visit to the San Juan Islands, I think this goal and supporting strategies are very much worth considering.
— Gary Anderson of Los Altos, Calif, worked for 25 years as a national and international economic consultant before embarking on a second career as a magazine editor.