From the editor - Our small-town living woes
September 13, 2023
La Conner continues to dodge the bullets that so much of small-town America is getting hit by: loss of employers, employees and families moving away, empty storefronts and boarded up homes, loss of hospitals and school closures. No, instead the problems here are employers struggling to fill open positions, employees stuck with commuting long distances and the local government needing robust affordable housing planning, policies and funding. The school district reacts to a smaller student population, but the high cost of housing is a tragedy it cannot solve.
And then there is law enforcement. Last week an Associated Press story datelined Goodhue, Minnesota, reported the town of 1,000 65 miles south of Minneapolis was closing its police department. La Conner knows that story and it is common in rural America: over 520 police departments have closed since 1972 the article states.
Law enforcement coverage is essential though locally administering a police department is not. La Conner has long contracted with the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office. Mayor Ramon Hayes and the town council have greatly increased funding in safety services the last two years and will likely add more to the budget for the coming year as emphasis continues to be placed on the fire department and code enforcement.
The town government has ensured public safety coverage. But how does the community gain protection from its reputation and its success? Everyone, seemingly, wants to first visit then live in La Conner. That cannot happen, of course. The limiting factor, as typically in America, is money. Everyone cannot afford to move here. Many of those who do are tilting the demographics to out-of-county residents tending toward, or in retirement. As well as becoming older, the community faces the possibility of becoming more homogeneous.
The Town of La Conner was able to resolve its need for law enforcement by contracting with the county’s sheriff office. But neither La Conner nor Skagit County has the funds nor the resources to support the development of a heterogeneous, multi-generational, vocationally and economic diverse population. This is a roundabout way to get to the central dilemma of workforce housing, an issue addressed in editorials here for years.
As assessed in this space before, the population that employers of every sort and our school officials desire and require cannot afford to live in the more populated areas of Skagit County. And besides the needed industrious and the diligent, what about the fringe elements of artists and assorted roustabouts – the characters of Tom Robbins novels and the actual drifters and odd ducks who made their way into the La Conner of one, two and three generations ago? When folks say La Conner is interesting, they are not pointing out the retired doctors, lawyers and accountants – no offense to any of those proud and needed professionals. But when was the last time you heard a lament for the need of another insurance broker to move into the neighborhood?
Today La Conner seems fairly safe on many levels Yes, there is aging infrastructure that will require massive capital expenditures to replace and bring it up to 21st century standards. And it is necessary as well as sensible to plan and save – and worry – about the essential need to flush toilets 50 years from now.
Town officials – elected and staff – are monitoring, planning and seeking solutions to treating wastewater and keeping fresh- and saltwater from flooding the community. But whether it is housing or creativity, it is the ad hoc efforts of individuals who are placing fingers in the dike to keep normalcy and the status quo from seeping in until one day, surprise, we are swamped with the established order of doing things as they have always been done.
— Ken Stern