“Art imitates nature in this: not to dare is to dwindle”
Langley faces an identity crisis in 2009. Several merchants have shuttered their businesses on 1st & 2nd streets over the past several months and more are rumored to close this year. The local school district plans to shut down facilities due to declining enrollment. Pleas are issued for a benefactor to save the “Dog”, a communal howl of hope, as concerned citizens seek to avoid the unthinkable–the end of the line for Langley’s venerable Dog House Tavern. To numerous town residents, the rapidly emptying commercial spaces are simply a reflection of the nation’s depressed economy. They view closed shops as the inevitable consequences of bad business decisions or just a necessary stop on the economic circle of life. To many others, however, the dark storefronts and thinning classrooms are symptoms of a local, and deeper problem. The vibrant retail and restaurant sectors are an essential part of Langley’s “brand” and their decline hits a bass note. Perhaps the faux western facades of a terminally cute town and the civic virtues of its inhabitants are not enough to sustain the promise of the good life for all. That Langley, a wee village, should be responsible for providing the good life is a daunting, perhaps unfair, expectation. However, it implicitly exists and the prospect that it may not be able to meet that expectation brings the town to the present crisis.
As Langley looks at its reflection in the mirror during this downturn it can be fairly secure in its core value structure. Community spirit, volunteerism and consciousness abound. The plurality found among its mere 1,000 souls is astonishing. In fact, one is hard-pressed to think of another community of its size engaged in as many cultural, artistic and environmental endeavors all the while maintaining a nearly continuous on-line forum debate over its guiding values. This embedded civic virtue seems to be its most enduring asset. However, a healthy town is a complex organism and it must nourish all of its cells in order to survive. The merchant class needs the opportunity to thrive, not just survive. It has to offer its youth the prospect of a future and a reason to return to the community after leaving for school or other experiences. It has to be a place where working folks can make a living as well as celebrate living. Year round. Therefore, unless Langley wants to become an elite enclave that only caters to those with independent means it will have to wean itself of an economy dependent upon tourism and seek to build a new economic model based on high-wage earning and low-impact businesses.
Imagine with me a scenario where the empty spaces downtown are filled in the future with clean energy consultants, non-profit think tanks and a small caucus of Boeing engineers who commute to Everett twice a week for meetings by way of a foot ferry linking Langley’s marina to Port Gardner Wharf. What if utility and power companies booked conferences in Langley because of its reputation as a sustainable village prototype? People might come to see how biking paths and electric powered carts connect a new conference center on Coles Road to the downtown as well as to browse the bookstores and admire the views. Could Langley be the first town of its size to boast a LEEDS certified building? Or to offer an attainable housing program? Might internet based businesses with small “footprints” elect to move their operations to Langley because of its reputation as an ideas incubator? Is it possible that one day, restauranteurs will look forward to the off-season because it means that business will go back to “normal” (that is, steady but relaxed) once again? Will a significantly higher percentage of local kids return to Langley someday, after receiving their degree, to work for a local firm or try their hand at a start-up enterprise in the space above Langley’s iconic tavern? On that note, could we envision Skagit Valley College opening a South Whidbey branch campus? How about Langley hosting a part of the Seattle Film Festival and one day serving as a destination for more script writers, directors and producers?
If the more dynamic Langley described above is appealing, read on. If not, toss or delete now. The paths to a more vibrant Langley are multiple and diverse, but share a common start: a commitment to resolving the identity crisis by first reshaping the town’s commercial underpinnings. For too long the economic foundation of Langley has been a monochromatic reliance upon discretionary income spending. This means living or dying by the purchases of tourists, or “visitors” (for those more inclined to add a human touch), and the well-off locals. The problem with this economic dependency is obvious on 1st Street today—in a recessionary cycle the unnecessary expenditures are the first to go. So dying becomes a reality. To shore up this aging structure, the first order of business is to attract a permanent class of high wage earning knowledge workers, such as those described by Richard Florida in his now seminal work “The Rise of the Creative Class”. An emerging knowledge enterprise sector will take Langley’s economic footers deeper and allow a more durable and stronger edifice. The vision presented here builds on this basic premise and suggests that Langley “re-brand” itself as a regional leader of “sustainable” community.
The call to leadership essentially asks Langley to articulate its core values to a larger audience. These values are for the most part self-evident in the absence of big-box retailers and strip-malls and the presence of arbors, view corridors and inviting spaces. Langley pretty much “gets it” already in that it has stubbornly resisted many of the catalysts that gave rise to the oil-dependent, suburban sprawl, over-consumptive, easy money practices that led to the “bubble” in the first place. So it requires only a small step to get to the podium. Why leadership? Because to whom much is given much will be required. Nature, a history of hard working people and a long-standing arts culture endowed Langley with a sense of place. Add to this mix the transplanted residents who chose to move here in the pursuit of the idyllic and you have an uncommon alchemy of talent, ideas and energy gathered in one small village. For these reasons Langley is uniquely poised to become a prototype sustainable community, one perhaps based on the new energy economy as described by Thomas Friedman in his book “Hot, Flat and Crowded.
It will be very important to arrive at some kind of shared definition of what “sustainability” means in order to tie Langley’s identity to it. In conversations today the word tends to be used synonymously with “green” and to incorporate ideas of conservation, re-use, net-zero resource use, etc. Those concepts need to remain in play. However, for the full flowering of a small community the discussion must include economic growth and development. It certainly must be acknowledged that to many Langleyites the essential idea of “sustainability” excludes an economic component. Large and authoritative voices in the sustainability movement share this view. One of the leading theorists of modern “systems” thinking, of which the notion of sustainability is a derivative, is Berkeley’s Fritjof Capra. In his teachings regarding building and nurturing sustainable communities, Capra calls for the creation of social, cultural and physical environments in which we can satisfy our needs and our aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations. Despite this fairly broad definition, however, Capra is known to recoil at suggestions that economic development fits within his tao of systems thinking. One is aware of similar sentiments among Langley’s own denizens, who perceive economic growth as the catalyst for the very evils the sustainability movement seeks to eradicate.
This fear deserves further examination, because omitting the financial element in the sustainability definition sidesteps the daily concerns of a large swath of the citizenry. Many folks worry more about jobs, income, the availability of basic goods and services—yes, even in Langley—than the need to buy “local” or grow vegetables in the back yard. In effect, equating sustainability with green practices exclusively ends up suffocating the class of persons that bring goods and services to town, fill the classrooms and broaden the local demographics. Perhaps a more balanced definition of sustainability is the one recently suggested by professor Bruce Hutton of the University of Denver:
The goal of sustainability is to achieve economic prosperity, social equality and environmental integrity through actions that respect and enhance all three.
I sense that Langley can embrace this working definition. While all three elements are equally important, the vision outlined here focuses on the economic component as the one that deserves immediate attention, requiring the most effort.
It can be argued that business failures alone aren’t necessarily a negative measure of the town’s reliance on discretionary dollars. Statistics show that up to 70% of new, single establishment enterprises fail over a 10 year period. However, it is not enough to simply cite statistics that a certain percentage of small businesses fail and expect that the invisible hand of the free market will yield a better business plan. Perhaps that holds true in larger markets. In the very small markets, though, a limited supply of oxygen permits only a certain number of retail candles to burn. In Langley, the retailers, inn keepers and food service providers historically “breathe” during the summer months and hold their collective breath for the balance of the year, a typical resort cycle. To break this cycle, Langley must brand itself differently. Rather than fueling the image of a summer getaway with a cool arts scene and quaint cottages the town’s leaders and marketers could paint a new portrait of the town as the place where ideas happen. Or perhaps the place where smart firms can offer their employees sophistication and sustainability embedded in the charm of village life. A friend of mine recently described his work colleagues as business hippies, a reference, I believe, to their unique blend of startup company energy and laid-back, Birkenstock style. They want to sip lattes in the morning, sea kayak on their lunch hour and commute home by way of a neighborhood electrical vehicle. And they have young families. That means school plays and PTA meetings too. It seems these folks would fit right in with a 1st Street office overlooking Saratoga Passage.
It is important to stress that the effort to re-invent Langley’s identity is not inorganic or artificial. The vision presented here does not call for new programs, gimmicks or desperate pleas. On the contrary, the “imagining Langley” exercise merely expands on what already exists. Several small firms fit the bill at the moment—e.g., Lindsay Communications, Russell Sparkman’s FusionSpark Media, Inc., The Giraffe Heroes Project, Ross Chapin’s architectural studio and others come to mind. These are low-impact, internet based businesses with national and international reaches. The owners and workers are committed to Langley on a year-round basis. Add to this a cohort of sustainable-minded village entrepreneurs—Gene and Tamar Felton, Maureen Cooke, Des Rock, Marty Fernandez, Paul Schell and Marty Behr, to name just a few, and it is obvious that Langley’s very capable human resources have already established the brand. The “marketing” is simply getting the message out to a wider audience with the goal of increasing the stable of enterprises of similar size and with congruent values.
Other communities have established values-based identities at various scales. Think, for example, of downtown Portland, Oregon, or Boulder, Colorado, as far as large, urban prototypes. Arcosanti in the high Arizona desert, hits on the really tiny end of the spectrum. Across the Atlantic, Poundbury, in England’s Dorset county might serve as an example. Again, it is not the streetscapes and physical attributes alone that define the ethos of those places, but rather an overall, intangible civic virtue. Similarly, the collection of coffee shops, gardens or a walk down Cascade on a clear, summer day tell only a small part of Langley’s story. They make for good postcards, but focusing upon such aesthetic delights may lull the community into not planning for a future, or worse, turn Langley’s sense of place into a caricature. Is it possible that Langley has obsessed over its own reflection to the point where, like Narcissus, it is doomed to stare at its own, unchanging image forever?
The public debate generated by the Two Totems project on 1st Street two years ago revealed the community’s fascination with its good looks. The outpouring of sentiment regarding scale, form and style was expressed in a generally healthy way. The same could be said about the on-line conversations last year regarding the future of the Dog House. The main thread of that posting was something like “won’t anyone step forward and make a go of the place without changing the use or any of the exterior elements we have come to know and love?” The priority of aesthetics implicit in this query is telling. Equally so the absence of interest in what would make it a profitable venture. Although not stated expressly, the subtext seemed to be “we don’t want to get into the details of whether it works as a viable business, we just want the comfort of knowing it won’t change.” This over-emphasis on appearance actually threatens Langley’s future by encouraging the townfolk to dwell on form rather than substance. To wit, the town ponders whether the new fire house across from the fairgrounds is in keeping with its historical character while Linds pharmacy quietly closes up.
The time has come for Langley to see its destiny beyond quaintness. The moment seems propitious to pursue a truly sustainable future with a more balanced demographic. Gen X needs to know that Langley supports high-tech, low-impact businesses and will make an effort to promote their kind. Gen Y needs to know that Langley would love to see a couple of start-ups in town. For-profits and non-profits across the water needs to know that cool ideas are welcome in Langley and that here they will encounter others who share their passion. By claiming this identity Langley can emerge as a model, dynamic village, the true sum of all its parts. Not to fear–time and the art of living can still be practiced here. The grace found in the unexpected encounter with an arbor and a sea breeze will not fade away. The arts will abound. These charms will continue because they are important to the community. But so is a more stable and prosperous future. The bronze lad next to the Pizzeria may capture this best. He gazes out to the Sound as if acknowledging that one day he must go, but given his youth, he surely contemplates whether he will return.