Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Small Towns, Big Ideas, Dangerous Driftwood

To have a future, see beyond the past

This past summer we took a trip to Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula. In two words: do it.

We spent a few days around the Fourth of July in the town of Forks, Washington. It's an interesting town of 3,500 whose economy is split between logging and tourism. Though logging is not universally liked among the locals, it provides stability as a robust, year-round tourist trade has not completely taken hold.

Forks is a mix of new, old, and repurposed. As the setting for The Twilight Saga, it's been four years since the last installment and its draw is fading. On one side of a short block are two barbers, a hair salon, a dog groomer, and a "For Sale" sign. The thirst for espresso (with two drive-up booths on the main road through town) and light beer seem equal. Predominantly white with some Native and Hispanic Americans, Forks seems culturally tolerant with a few exceptions.

In the 2016 election cycle, you can't possibly understand populism or economic nostalgia without seeing small town and rural poverty. Though I've lived the D.C. area all my life, I remember growing among near pockets of poverty in rural Montgomery County, Maryland. For the most part, rural Washington doesn't share the prosperity of nearby Seattle.

But creative destruction, shifting tastes, and changing mores can be a death knell for small towns. Situated between the Pacific and Olympic National Park, Forks has it better than others: the main coast road runs through town and its economy is more diversified than others.

Pity the local politician: politics and businesses present vastly different economic challenges at the local level. Politicians face the prospect of a fading, immobile town while businesses – though reliant on local resources – can pick up and move. Workers are interchangeable; voters are not. Migration provides a way out but community ties and financial constraints (a mortgage and a home nobody wants, for instance) often bind and restrain residents. And local politicians don't want to be the ones to turn out the lights.

The impetus for local economic growth has to come from the private sector. But politicians can create the environment by cutting ties to the past and reaching out to a broader audience. Now-prosperous areas like Montgomery County can offer incentives and subsidies to employers to come and remain. Small towns and many local economies don't have that luxury.

Signs along the beaches for this part of the Pacific Coast warn of "dangerous driftwood" in the ocean surf: timber washed down from upstream logging operations. In some way it's a metaphor for local economies: a valuable harvest that somewhere down the road has the potential to kill you.

Outsiders don't vote local elections. But like immigrants who seek a better life in America, locals have to lure outsiders with prospects of a better life outside the big city. They may be city slickers, but they're also paying customers.