WRITTEN BY WILLIAM DIETRICH
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
Cap Sante, a rocky knob of a park, gives a view of Cap Sante Marina and central Anacortes.
IT USED TO BE that American small towns were disappearing because everyone moved away. Now they're disappearing because people are moving in.
Some small towns in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties have simply been surrounded by sprawl.
And in towns outside this metro orbit, newcomers are beginning to outnumber old-timers. The cultural, intellectual and economic isolation that used to mark small-town life — a frequent subject of 20th-century literature — has been erased by these urban newcomers and all they bring — the chain stores, the Internet, cable and good highways. Nobody's a hick anymore.
Which brings us to the small city of about 16,000 people where I live: Anacortes, "gateway to the San Juan Islands," about 85 miles northwest of Seattle. Once a mill town out of sight and mind at road's end, it has evolved into a retirement and boating center increasingly "discovered" by Seattle and California baby boomers.
Anacortes has jumped about 50 percent in population since 1990, gaining as many people in the past 15 years as it had in the previous 40. Houses are being built at twice the rate of a year ago, and their prices are up 50 percent in just five years. Retired high-powered executives share the grocery aisles with boatwrights and refinery workers.
Environmentalist Tom Glade is one of many urging tighter controls as builders blast into hillsides to create new view homesites.
Jon Peterson, a real-estate economist moving up from California, calls people like himself "equity refugees." In town in 2003 for some consulting work, he had "an epiphany" of how ideal and affordable the city is. "I find it shocking more people aren't moving to Anacortes," he says.
Ah, but they are. The city is rapidly approaching its population ceiling of 18,300 assigned by the Growth Management Act, and residents are struggling to decide if the future is blue collar or white, industry or tourism, cautious complacency or a re-imagination of civic purpose. Is their burg's destiny to become a small Tacoma, or Carmel? Orange County, or Mayberry? Can it sustain its elusive compromise of working town and coastal community, a regional hub that still manages to keep Wal-Mart at bay?
Or is its destiny to become a suburb, a housing enclave, of Pugetopolis?
As such, Anacortes is a microcosm of Western Washington as a whole. Despite rising prices, the city is still a bargain compared to Seattle. When baby boomers bail, will it be to places like Anacortes? How much Seattle will they bring with them? Will they contribute new vitality, or create a real-estate Disneyland?
"Some retirees expect a gated community where they can shut themselves off from the rest of the world and freeze Anacortes in time," says Duncan Frazier, former editor of the Anacortes American.
Which misunderstands the city. "This once was a greasy little lunch-bucket town," says Mayor Dean Maxwell, "with smoke so thick you couldn't see the water." While he appreciates the changes and applauds the influx of newcomers for having been good about giving back, he doesn't want a retirement community: "It's really about balance."
Residents complain that too much recent development is uninspired suburbia.
That balance is the city's challenge. "It's still a real town, unlike La Conner or Leavenworth," notes Anacortes Councilwoman Cynthia Richardson, who moved from Seattle nine years ago. The city has two refineries, 1,400 shipyard and marine-industry workers, and a lack of pretension, elitism or artistic preciousness. Yet three-quarters of its population is already engaged in white-collar professions, services or sales.
The Gold Coast views increasingly mean that "a lot of unskilled or trade jobs don't pay enough (often $30,000 to $50,000 a year) for those workers to live in Anacortes anymore," Richardson says. Everyone has a story about children of long-time families who can't afford to live there.
Mark and Molly Strohschein, high-school teachers who passionately contribute blocks of time to Anacortes Community Theater, bought just three years ago, and say it would be difficult to do so now.
This in-between-ness — mill-town history, coastal-community future — is echoed by the town's geography. Anacortes rests on "the other San Juan Island," Fidalgo, separated from mainland Skagit County farmland by the Swinomish Channel and from Whidbey Island by Deception Pass. Connected by three bridges, it's the one San Juan Island you don't have to take a ferry or boat to.
As a result, Fidalgo (named for a Spanish explorer who never actually saw it) has as many people as the rest of the San Juans combined.
That's producing challenges. While retirees flood in, the school population is declining. Woodlands and horse pastures are becoming subdivisions. And what happens when Anacortes hits its population ceiling? Should growth stop, being confined to the mainland? Does the city sprawl into semi-rural South Fidalgo Island? Or does Anacortes build up instead of out, with cottage housing, low-rise condos or even a tower or two?
The city's highest point, 1,300-foot Mount Erie, offers a stunning view of Anacortes' Skyline neighborhood and the San Juan Islands.
FOR A REALTOR, selling the island today is like shooting baskets at a hoop the size of a swimming pool. Former Seattle Best Coffee President Jim Clarke and his wife, Kathy, bought the John L. Scott franchise after moving in three years ago. Last year, their business shot up 83 percent.
"The common denominator is boating and escape," Jim Clarke says.
Half the city's land is in park or forest reserve, a ratio that may be the highest in the United States. It is surrounded by water on three sides. The beautiful bony geology of Fidalgo earns it the nickname "the Rock" (one neighborhood is called Gibralter, the historic misspelling quaintly mysterious) and the summit of 1,300-foot Mount Erie is one of a score of public places — and thousands of homes — with heartbreaking views.
Average rainfall is a foot less than at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The schools are excellent, levies passing with the regularity of the tide. The community has just built a new library and is expanding its hospital. The senior center is so vigorous that it helped transform my mother from widow newcomer to social butterfly in weeks. The talent in its small community theater is astonishing, the city has a great small bookstore and an impressive mix of artists, writers and craftsmen.
There hasn't been a murder in at least 10 years, and major crime is almost nonexistent. "Crime control is a lot easier than land use in this city," says Police Chief Mike King.
Nine lakes are sprinkled around Fidalgo, along with dozens of miles of trail, and Deception Pass State Park, the most popular in the state. Anacortes is still small enough that people actually gather on the main drag each Fourth of July for a community snapshot. It's hip enough that locals mostly enjoy the thousands of bikers who come roaring in each September for the "Oyster Run." It's generous enough that $750,000 has been raised to save forest lands. Service clubs abound, competing to outdo each other with improvements.
The thriving Dakota Creek shipyard, right next to downtown, is an example of the balance Anacortes seeks between business and beauty. Mount Baker is in the background.
Politically, Anacortes is as moderate as its climate. It split between Bush and Kerry 50-50, and is politically engaged enough, orderly enough and polite enough that opposing sets of demonstrators have waved signs supporting and denouncing the Iraq war each Sunday since the conflict began. It has a vigorous environmental community, and public meetings are often full and spirited.
It is not yet a gray-hair ghetto, nor a high-tech Nerdistan, not funky, not grimy, not exclusive, not cheap. It's just welcoming, laid back, slow, earnest and, by urbanite standards, purposely dull. Anacortes Museum educator Terry Slotemaker suggests it is near-perfect size because it has only a single high school, giving the city a unity lost when competing schools become necessary.
Dozens of writers and artists contributed to an ambitious book, "At Home on Fidalgo," that sold 2,500 copies at $15 each to support local forest lands. That's one copy for each six residents — a sign that Anacortians are intensely self-conscious about where they live.
"I love the richness of life here, the diversity of it," says the book's editor, Evelyn Adams, a naturalist who came 25 years ago from New England. "I love the wildflower meadows, the old growth, the saltwater shores."
Yet because of its mill-town past, a city surrounded by water has not a single hotel on the water, and only one restaurant. "It's a waterfront town with no waterfront," said one recent immigrant from Portland.
Started by Anacortes Greek immigrant Mike Demopoulos in 1913, downtown's Marine Supply and Hardware is the oldest store of its kind on the West Coast.
Its somewhat desultory downtown dead-ends before Guemes Channel. Restaurants with inventive cuisine struggle. The movie theater was built on the cheap. The lack of a college branch helps make the town seem staid. The new housing is standard suburbia, with little innovation in layout or design. The city is almost 93 percent white, compared to a statewide average of 82 percent, and 21 percent of its population is older than 65, compared to a state average of 11.2 percent.
For all its charm, Anacortes is as gawky, pimply and undecided about its future as a teenager. It hasn't paved paradise, but it sure is cutting down a lot of Eden's trees: At this writing, environmentalists are urging a tree ordinance, but development controls generally are feeble by big-city standards.
"It's frustrating that the business community and the environmentalists are often at loggerheads," says Adams. Its biggest asset, beauty, is its most ignored.
JUST AS MANY visitors don't even realize Fidalgo Island is an island, many don't realize that Anacortes is more than its cute "old town" core. The city limits extend almost from the Swinomish Channel on the east to Rosario Strait on the west, its main roads making a huge backward "S" that, from the tip of March's Point to the boundary subdivision of Marine Heights, stretches 13 miles.
The result is a civic front porch that is a gamut of America at its least inspired. While a sign pretends Anacortes begins at a nice viewpoint of Fidalgo Bay and Mount Baker, the city really must own up to the dreary miles before that — a chain of junkyards, storage facilities, RV dealerships, billboards and scabby fields annexed from Skagit County. Highway 20 is an Aurora Avenue wannabe. Next comes Commercial Avenue, a typical car-dependent drag of single-story retail outlets with blessedly easy parking — take that, Seattle! — and a ho-hum homeliness that walls visitors off from the island's beauty.
Anacortes' two oil refineries are an economic mainstay that sometimes provides ethereal industrial beauty.
"We counted a million visitors a year, and everyone came through and didn't stay," recalls Maria Petrish, former Chamber of Commerce director. "People asked what we should do about Commercial Avenue. I said, 'Blow it up.' "
Most tourists skip "downtown" because they turn left at Safeway before it begins, so plans are afoot to build an arch to alert visitors to its presence. Twenty-two years ago, a University of Washington study recommended linking the business district to the water, but few of its recommendations took hold. Meanwhile, the docks have been hostage to industrial clients who never show up, the circular argument being that you need the Port District docks to attract industry, and you need industry to pay for the Port District docks.
This layout is a template of city history. Just as "Seinfeld" succeeded because it was a show "about nothing," so Anacortes has blossomed because "nothing" happened there. Its stuttering economy kept it unspoiled.
Which is the city's dilemma. Ask anyone what they want and, "Whether they came yesterday or 40 years ago," Richardson observes, "they want it the way it was." The problem is, Anacortes has been evolving rapidly ever since founder Amos Bowman invented the name as a tribute to his wife, Anna Curtis.
Anacortes had dreams of being the terminus of the transcontinental railroad and was laid out on a scale, historian and former American newspaper publisher Wallie Funk points out, to be the "Manhattan of the West." For decades the city's streets were long, lonely dirt lanes with houses separated from each other by great stands of fir and hemlock.
Environmental activist and Anacortes resident Bob Rose has spent much of his life helping save things such as Heart Lake here “ once proposed for condos ” and forests and farmland.
The initial land rush that left the city with a few brick buildings quickly went bust. What followed was a wood-mill and cannery town, the canneries on the deepwater north shore of Guemes Channel, and the mills on Fidalgo and Burrows bays to east and west. Where yachts ply now, there used to be log rafts miles long, waiting for processing. Chinese and Filipino cannery workers, and Croatian and Greek fishermen, gave the town more ethnic diversity then than today.
Every old-timer remembers the smoke and the smell. "Sometimes the air was unbreathable," remembers Phyllis Ennes, 76. Hordes of seagulls hovered over the canneries and the fertilizer plant's gut scows. At 12th Street, where ferry traffic turns left, there was a tidal estuary that cut the town in two between wealthy north and working-class south. The Safeway parking lot was a wetland.
Fishing and logging slowly died, but Anacortes was saved from near-extinction in the 1950s when two refineries located on March's Point. Then came pleasure boats, by the thousands.
Modernization was painful. When Funk editorialized for the paving of city streets in the late 1950s, one long-time family that held a lot of taxable property burned a cross on his lawn. The streets were paved, but the antipathy helped drive Funk to temporary exile at Oak Harbor.
The city's small department stores were killed by the opening of Burlington's Cascade Mall, 20 miles away, and a community ban on big-box stores means you can't buy socks or underwear in Anacortes today. The city collects only one-ninth as much sales-tax revenue, per person, as Tukwila-wannabe Burlington.
Former Seattle's Best Coffee President Jim Clarke and his wife, Kathy, "retired" to Anacortes and promptly bought the John L. Scott real-estate franchise. They are examples of a growing wave of executives moving north.
With its industrial legacy and recreational future, Anacortes remains confused about where it goes next. Despite the presence of some beautiful waterfront parks, most of its shoreline is still relegated to industry. City officials want to draw middle-wage boat builders, not barristas and barmaids.
Nor is Anacortes willing to take anything that comes along. Citizens voted to block a third grocery store because it would occupy land originally cleared for industry and was too far from the downtown core. Many testified against welcoming a luxury-yacht builder onto public port land, so the company went to Port Angeles instead.
"We're not in a hurry," says Mayor Maxwell. "We don't have to do backflips to attract business. If Anacortes stays the way it is, that's just fine." A long line of fast-talking promoters has come to town with dubious dreams, little capital and less delivery.
Yet Councilman Terry Christiansen, citing a looming crisis in inadequate tax revenue that won't be solved by property taxes on the new houses, has gotten council backing for a study to finally plot Anacortes' retail future. "If we can achieve more economic balance, we can get by with no or minimal growth," he says.
Through her local newspaper column and books, naturalist Evelyn Adams has become a primary voice for protecting Fidalgo Island.
One key is 80 acres of prime waterfront land, with jaw-dropping views of Mount Baker, that has sat vacant for decades. Developer Gary Merlino says the original plan was for a marina and marine businesses, but the community has no consensus on whether the best use is industry, retail, hotel, housing or some combination of the four. The result has been stalemate.
"Whether we can continue having a working waterfront is the city's biggest issue," says Ian Munce, city attorney and city planner. "This is still a real town where people are making a real living."
OF ALL THE attributes of Anacortes, the most remarkable is its 2,200 acres of mostly second-growth forest land. This former watershed was at one time intended for logging and development, but was saved by the rise of environmental groups that rallied around an early bumper sticker reading: "Fidalgo Island: Love it or log it."
"The city's perspective went from we've got too much unused land to holy cow, we've got an incredible asset," recalls Bob Rose, who helped found a watchdog group called Evergreen Islands.
The bumpy change of perception is illustrated by the city's decision to not simply preserve the lands with a stroke of the pen, which it could do, but rather require citizens to buy conservation easements at the rate of $1,000 an acre. Some complain this amounts to extortion — contribute or we cut — while others say it was the only way such a small city could raise enough money ($750,000 to date) to manage so much forest park.
South Fidalgo Island is a storybook landscape of farm, lake, forest and nearby islands.
Increasingly, this core seems like a vital oasis. Skagit County is reviewing rural zoning south of Anacortes; a new plan is due at the end of the year. The Swinomish Indian tribe, headquartered on Fidalgo Island opposite La Conner, has proposed a hotel, marina, condominiums and possibly a shopping center at the eastern boundary of Anacortes near its casino at Highway 20. The Samish tribe has won permission for a subdivision on what would otherwise be rural land above Campbell Lake. A whole series of in-city developments are in the works to consume most of the remaining vacant waterfront land between the ferry dock and downtown.
Increasingly, some argue, this kind of forest foresight seems to be in short supply. "It takes vision," says former Evergreen Islands president Tom Glade, who once lived in Los Angeles. His group is fighting for a series of protective ordinances but has met resistance. City officials complain environmentalists are too quick to sue, while environmentalists complain the government is too entrenched and myopic, allowing itself to be outflanked by change.
Such argument is playing itself out in a hundred cities across Western Washington as growth and demographic trends turn communities on their ear.
"I see it from both sides," says Port Commissioner Brian Wetcher, another former president of Evergreen Islands who, in his new job, tries to accommodate industry. "It's not like developers don't see the gem they have, but they try to get every facet out of it because there's not much left: the developable land has been bought. This town has to have a commercial core so people can afford to live here."
But what kind of core?
"There's an opportunity for communities like this to affirm where they want to go," says environmentalist Rose, "but Anacortes has not grabbed hold of it yet."
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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