Times are changing on Lopez

In the 60s my wife and I sailed our boat into Fisherman’s Bay, and I experienced “love at first sight.” The local residents, who today we’d call the “Old Timers” were sweet and welcoming.

By Greg Blomberg

Special to the Weekly

In the 60s my wife and I sailed our boat into Fisherman’s Bay, and I experienced “love at first sight.”  The local residents, who today we’d call the “Old Timers” were sweet and welcoming. I’d never experienced anything like it. I wasn’t content ‘till my boat was sold so there were funds to buy a toehold on “The Rock.” I vowed to always welcome those who came as I had been welcomed. I also vowed to not change the island, well that’s essentially impossible, but I have been fortunate enough to create work and activities that have not depended on “developing” the island.

With and without me the island has changed a great deal since I moved here. Now there’s more than one ferry serving the islands. A clinic was built and we got a real doctor. We have an active business community that serves up wonderful food and a plethora of goods and services we all depend on. In 1968 Lopez had an aging community, with fishing and farming being the traditional way to make a living here. Back then many of the young folks headed for the city. Now there are many young people and babies; we all enjoy all the good energy of the vibrancy that brings. We have been blessed by many new residents who’ve both the financial where-with-all and a vision of community with the generosity and grace to share their good fortune in many ways. The San Juan Preservation Trust has had the positive impact of saving hundreds of acres of spectacular and environmentally endangered properties on the islands. New residents have shared their talents and energy and put together a wonderful school and super recycling, delicious organic produce and on and on…

However, not all the changes have been great. The negative changes are directly related to the impact of the ever increasing number of us. The rush to have a piece of the action here is like an island’s gold rush. People have bought land for second or even third homes, running land prices up so high that it excludes young folks (many of whom grew up on the island) from ever being able to own a piece of “The Rock.”

Riding the ferries these days, especially in the ever expanding tourist season can be grueling. The reservation system leans towards accommodating the tourists.  Last year, by getting to the ferry early I could get a ride. Now someone from Kansas having  a “destination” wedding on San Juan in July can have their guests reserve 150 auto spaces on one ferry.

I don’t know about you but when I visit the village I like to see the same person more than once. We are all tourists at times, but community comes from friends and family. It is difficult to construct a real and meaningful community from tourists. Each island’s Chamber of Commerce is working hard to promote the islands as a destination. That’s good for business, and I am thankful for most all of our island businesses, especially those that work to retain the character of the islands, who serve the community year-round and that are managed by locals who own them. But, all of us know there is never quite enough money. Many multi-millionaires feel this way. So does that mean we pull out all the stops for commerce?

We all need to stay in contact with reality about the number of visitors that really are good for us. Unless we want uncontrolled growth here we are stuck with the reality that these islands won’t always have a steady supply of customers eager to give us their money. To add to that, every would-be restaurateur, (or whatever kind of business person) that comes here and sees your place full of happy people wants to open their business across the street so they can share the wealth!

We need to use caution so we don’t “throw the baby out with the bath water”. Uncontrolled growth is the definition of cancer. These islands are finite; our sweet local communities are our real wealth. I remember when Frank Leeming came here, bought the Friday Harbor Journal and proclaimed he was going to put these sleepy backwater islands “on the map.” He was pretty successful at getting the word out. He made his money, but Frank had bigger fish to fry and he moved on in a short while.

Like Leeming there are folks here that know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. None-the- less much of the sweetness is still here. We love these magical islands and that certainly includes the Chamber of Commerce folks. Most all of us want to preserve our communities, but at times we are not always wise enough to see the folly in our own well-meaning schemes

It is unfair to sell what we don’t own. Island promoters need to be responsible to the whole population, not just those who stand to profit financially by it. I would bet we have reached a place in time where, no matter what, the folks are going to keep coming. If the chambers were to provide information on lodging, ferries, activities, etc. but did very little promotion, growth here would be a more manageable but steady amount. That might allow our islands (and the ferry system) to accommodate the changes more gracefully.

These islands were absolutely perfect before you or I ever set a foot on them. Let us all work together toward preserving the islands natural beauty as well as nurturing our beloved small town communities.