Life on the Rocks | Can we pull together for change?

By Steve Ulvi

Journal contributor

While a smiling gal checked my driver’s license at a rustic lakeside resort in eastern Washington, she raised her eyebrows saying “Friday Harbor! Oh, lucky you!”. I grinned, opting not to contest her outworn assumption. I ask, is this really an exceptional community or more like a form of collective delusion resistant to reason?

“Ya shoulda been here 40 years ago!” is a common refrain heard by folks seeking rural community values like economic stability, ecological richness of surrounding lands and waters, affordable living and a promising family future anywhere in vaunted places in the West, but painfully true here.

Unregulated summer tourism has been a hollow dollar free-for-all. Luxury home cost-plus residential construction for occasional occupancy is highly inflationary. Affordable housing development remains grossly underfunded. Critical safety nets of non-profits and county service programs are strained. Steeply increasing property assessments, as well as a complicated government growing itself, are bleeding year around residents, like too many leeches applied to an already weak patient.

However, I am a sucker for themes of bottom-up community regeneration. As a social critic, I don’t underestimate the up-spiraling challenges for community leaders trying to play issue whack-a-mole while most residents have generally failed to engage in public discourse. Until recently, that is. Community voices and votes are backlashing in protest to our scatter-shot approach and inertia in resolving key socio-economic issues plucked from a boatload of wordy plans that rarely have the legs or sufficient funding to drive essential socio-economic redirection.

But there are promising reactionary signs that some residents are fed up with taxation for more gold-plated public amenities.

We had no choice in the unique 32-hour work week with 40 hours of pay for most County employees. The positive spin was that there would be energized recruitment and workforce well-being. Show us!

Private interests are collaborating to create a subsidized water taxi service to backstop unreliable interisland ferry service.

Comprehensive state regulations enabling realistic tiny house development are awaiting County consideration.

Our biggest private employers are creating some worker housing thereby becoming part of the solution for the severe housing shortage they have worsened for decades.

A draft Destination Plan that suggests corrective actions for abusive summer tourism has fallen flat but has stimulated promising public engagement.

The reboot of a necessary, but unacceptably expensive public library relocation, will rely on greater private funding.

A restart, with proper public involvement this time, exploring options for a partially funded multi-use trail to Zylstra Lake (or elsewhere).

Agricultural organizations are intent on increasing re-localized food production on Land Bank acreage and elsewhere, using a cooperative, “shared land access” model to decrease our alarming food insecurity.

The county and Lautenbach are slowly reducing our voluminous and costly waste stream.

The Port of Friday Harbor is expanding federal funding into new construction and small business and incubator enterprises with a nod to resident benefits.

Will we embolden more collaboration and creative thinking in our deeply fractured “island culture” toward a more stable and self-reliant economic future?