Puget Sound Town Weighs Impact of Tourism Tide Development

Travel Watch
By Leslie Allen
National Geographic Traveler
August 8, 2003

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the April 2001 issue of the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every Friday.

It's showtime at the Upstage Restaurant, and magician Joe Pipia is pulling coins out of thin air and making rubber balls vanish under tablecloths. A magician's black topper isn't the only hat Pipia wears in Port Townsend, Washington, though. As a co-founder of the Rite is Wrong Committee, Pipia in 1999 helped produce a civic disappearing act, leading drugstore giant Rite Aid to shelve plans for a large new store in the small Olympic Peninsula town.

"We surprised ourselves by getting 2,650 signatures in a town of 8,400 adults," says Pipia.

The chain store resistance continued in 2000 as opponents blocked Hollywood Video from moving in, defeating pro-development forces and those residents seeking more variety than local stores offered. Many more townspeople felt that a big box store would be deeply at odds with their genuine Victorian-era seaport, a designated National Landmark whose appeal to visitors depends on one-of-a-kind, logo-free authenticity.

Port Townsend is now grappling with the development issues that have bedeviled other historic towns for decades. A bustling seaport in the late 19th century, the town sprouted hundreds of opulent Victorian mansions and imposing commercial buildings fronting the entrance to Puget Sound. But when the railroad bypassed it, the "City of Dreams" lapsed into a deep sleep. The grand buildings survived, though, as did the town's maritime craftsmanship. In the 1970s, Port Townsend reawakened as urban refugees from Seattle—two hours away by car and ferry—began arriving. Today's population is an eclectic mix of paper-mill workers, artists, boatbuilders, Boeing retirees, New Age massage therapists, and others in search of the laid-back and offbeat. ("We're all here," reads a local bumper sticker, "because we're not all there.") Historic charm, mountain vistas, water sports, a Wooden Boat Festival, and a year-round calendar of first-rate cultural events now draw growing numbers of well-to-do tourists. Over a million people visit every year.

Maybe too many, say some. In 2000, after the National Trust for Historic Preservation handed Port Townsend its "Great American Main Street Award" for revitalizing the historic downtown, civic pride prompted some civic soul-searching as well. Having turned back strip-mall sprawl, some residents are taking a hard look at their business district. Thanks to tourism, many of the meticulously restored buildings now house high-end restaurants and B&Bs, hotels, exquisite art galleries like Ancestral Spirits, and precious, pricey shops like Twigs. Does the town face a future of upscale tourist businesses and low-wage service jobs? Will it turn into another Carmel or Aspen or Santa Fe—places that many regard as exclusive, expensive, and overrun by visitors?

"The trend will become inevitable unless something quite deliberate is done to keep locals coming," states Scott Wilson, publisher and editor of the weekly Leader. Tourists themselves have a stake, he points out: Doesn't a fully functional town make for a more rewarding visit than a quaint but hollow stage set?

If so, the retail mix downtown needs to retain its diversity. "When people come to me and say they want to start an espresso stand, I tell them we don't need another one," says Erik Andersson, Executive Director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Council. Existing businesses can make a point of catering to locals, he adds, citing the Public House, a popular tourist haunt that runs special promotions to lure townspeople. Or Swain's, a general store that responded when a survey showed that locals wanted a better selection of clothing and shoes.

"I can buy shoes at Swain's cheaper than those in big mall stores an hour away," says Yvonne Starkey, purchasing manager at the paper mill.

On the other hand, almost everyone agrees that tourism has pumped life into the town. Inn-keeper Joe Finnie first came as a tourist, in 1992. "I found a unique Victorian seaport," he says, "that can sustain both community needs and tourism."

Port Townsend will have to pull a rabbit out of its collective hat to maintain that balance. Then again, that's something the town has done before.

Leslie Allen is a Washington, D.C., writer.

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