Turn of a Century: The future

New Navy planes; a gentrified economy; health care and business in cyberspace — key people tell us what the future holds for Whidbey

  • Thursday, December 30, 1999 12:00pm
  • News

“As the 21st century begins, what’s in store for Whidbey Island’s future? We asked some key people what they think will happen to our towns, our countryside and our lifestyles:THE NAVYWhidbey Island Naval Air Station’s two mainstay airplanes — the EA-6B and the P-3 — are probably safe for 10 to 15 years, retired Rear Adm. Jim Seely says. After that, what happens to NAS Whidbey will depend on what happens to its aircraft, and what happens to the global need for defense in general.On the positive side, said Seely, who lobbied for the base during the base closure scares of the 1990s, Whidbey’s location is still ideal for a military air base.“Our EA-6B’s can go up every day of the week and practice because of the air space,” he said. “Down south — Lemoore is near Fresno, Calif. — there just isn’t enough air space and there are lots of FAA restrictions on jamming down there.”Lemoore Naval Air Station is important because it might become a rival of Whidbey’s for the plane that eventually replaces the venerable EA-6B. Today, all of the Navy’s EA-6Bs are based at Whidbey, and the plane is expected to keep flying through 2010, Seely said. After that, nobody really knows.“They’re looking at several different ways they may do the same job, and it varies from rebuilding and making new EA-6B’s, using F-18’s, using unmanned aerial vehicles, space- based jamming …’’If the next plane is an EA-6B or something like it, Whidbey’s the likely place, Seely said. If it’s an F-18, Lemoore might be a front runner.One thing’s not in doubt, though, he said.“In my 34 years in the Navy I’ve never seen a more supportive community and better community relationship,” Seely said. “The people change, but the relationship seems to stay the same.”PRICEY LAND, POOR JOBSIsland County Commissioner Mac McDowell says he thinks the county will face some tough times trying to build a stronger business base in years to come.“The price of property continues to skyrocket but at the same time business tends to be tied to the tourist business,” McDowell said. “Consequently it costs a lot to live here, but the jobs don’t pay very well.”That doesn’t paint a very attractive picture to new businesses looking for a place to locate — especially when they can find better conditions nearby on the mainland.“I see no real relief in sight,” he said. Though the county will continue to push for more home-based and Internet businesses on the island, McDowell said he would also like to see the government work harder to help young families. He said other counties have seen great benefits from identifying families at risk and providing a visiting nurse to children from birth through age 3. “Maybe in 15 to 20 years we would have fewer people who end up in bad straits,” said MacDowell. “We keep saying prevention, prevention, prevention but I don’t think that, as far as the general fund, we’ve stepped up to the plate yet. We keep building more jails but we don’t solve the problem.”There was no extra money in the budget to start the program this year McDowell said because of the passage of Initiative 695 in November.Elsewhere on the island, McDowell sees tougher environmental laws making many things, such as road building and repair, much more expensive, and though he doesn’t see a major problem with local ferry service reductions, he said future replacement of the current fleet may be in jeopardy.On the positive side, the county is testing a new interactive teleconferencing system that could allow Camano Island residents to view and participate in government meetings held in Coupeville — the first sign in local government of technology that could help make travel unnecessary.THE INTERNETEverything seems to have a “dot-com” attached to it these days. That, combined with the incredible growth of online commerce shown this Christmas, is proof that the Internet will be a force in the future.Steve Raley, who works as a support technician at Whidbey Net, says we’re just getting started.“People are going to continue to underestimate it,” Raley said. “The sky’s going to be the limit.”For one thing, things will continue to get faster and faster. Speeds of modems that connect computers over the Internet have gotten about five times faster in the last three or four years. The next step is to much faster Digital Subscriber Lines which will allow computers and regular telephone conversations to occur at the same time over the same line.What this means is that the consumer will have to pay out more money for more hardware and software to keep up.“The faster things go the more memory is going to be required and the more storage is going to be needed,” said Raley. LAW & ORDERIsland County Prosecutor Greg Banks has mixed feelings about the future.On one hand, he said information technology should make communication between various branches of the law and justice system much easier and more efficient.But on the other, he predicts new problems in the millennium. He said prosecutors will have to learn to deal with a new brand of high-tech crimes, such as Internet harassment and child pornography, as well as privacy issues.The prison system, he said, will be pushed to the limits in the near future and the state will have to find alternatives to locking up people. All areas of the state, including Island County, will have to look at things like drug courts and treatment-based sentencing programs.He also predicts more of the same old problems. He said the legislature will “continue to respond to emotional headline issues by passing sweeping laws and continue to criminalize more and more activities.” He said the law and justice system will be left to contend with the constant law changes, which historically have been short-sighted and ineffective.While county prosecutors are scheduled to move into the county’s planned-for law and justice building in the year 2001, he said they’ll be overcrowded in the new space on the first day they move in.HIGHER EDUCATIONMick Donahue, vice president for the Skagit Valley College Whidbey Campus, sees big changes ahead for the island’s college. In addition to new courses in culinary arts, human services and even jazz, the college will offer more night and weekend classes.The college itself will grow significantly in the summer of 2001 when construction begins on a new 35,000 square-foot building that Donahue says will give the Whidbey facility a more campus-like feeling.The new building will house new physical education programs, a fitness lab and interactive classrooms where students will eventually be able to take distance-learning classes and obtain four-year degrees through Western Washington State University.Donahue says a recent grant will allow the college to expand its technology training program, purchase new equipment and hire a new full-time instructor.THE ENVIRONMENTSteve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network says he thinks much of the change in the coming century will be a change in attitudes.Erickson said people will have a hard time balancing their support of a free market system against the consequences of allowing people to do anything they want. Currently, he said, too many businesses that ignore environmental laws are getting away with it because governments are not enforcing the rules. As a result, the violating companies are getting an unfair advantage over businesses trying to obey the law.“As time goes on you’re going to see these unconscious subsidies decline,” said Erickson. “On the local side you’ll see more and more control but it will be generated on a much larger scale.” Erickson points to future laws resulting from global warming as an example.“The decisions we make now are going to affect what this place looks like in not just 20 years, but 50 years and 100 years,” he said.Erickson predicts that government officials will have to start looking ahead more than trying to protect doing things the way they’ve been done in the past.HEALTH CAREGene therapy, Internet access to health care and other exotic new technologies will continue to change the face of health care in the new century, on Whidbey and in the rest of the country, Whidbey General Hospital chief executive officer Scott Rhine said. He said he hopes that developing technologies will help lower the cost of health care and disease prevention. He said he thinks the health care economy’s current problems with insurance and the lack of patient access will be eased as the century progresses, and Whidbey General may grow, too.“If the island grows, the hospital will grow,” he said.OAK HARBORCity Planner Tom Burdett’s vision on the future is painted by the city’s Comprehensive Plan that sets the course for the city 20 years out.It will be a bigger, busier, but happy place if things go as planned.He said tourists and locals will walk and shop together in downtown Oak Harbor. There will be some taller buildings, including a large hotel and conference center on the waterfront. Nearby, people will come and go on a foot ferry that docks at the city’s new pier. Retired people will live in modern condos built above a variety of retail stores and restaurants, both large and small. A beachside trail will run from the marina to the Freund marsh park.The city limits will extend northward, taking in existing companies and a new campus-style business park. Technology-based, light manufacturers and Internet businesses will provide well-paying jobs to local workers.But even with the growth, the environment will remain clean, maybe healthier than it is now, because of new protections and cleaner technology. And salmon will be bountiful once again, Burdett predicted.COUPEVILLECort predicts slow steady growth in Coupeville over the next century. Some of its larger undeveloped areas will probably be platted and developed. But being surrounded by Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve will limit expansion.The availability of potable water will also affect growth, but not as much.“If we built out every lot right now, we’d have to find more sources of water,” Cort said. “But it won’t be the limiting factor as much as Coupeville being in the reserve will.“I think Coupeville’s already had its biggest growth spurt — between 1970 and 1995,” Cort said. “Centuries from now people will point to that as it fastest growth period, and I don’t think we’ll see that again.”Still, even though the town’s physical size might not grow, change could reshape the town in different ways, Cort said.“One fear is, knowing that there will be growth pressure from greater Puget Sound areas, will people look at some of our smaller homes as teardowns? It’s a fear that we’d lose those homes, the character and the affordability of Coupeville.’’SPORTSMike Waller, president of the Oak Harbor Wildcat Booster Club, foresees continued interest in local athletics in the new millennium, particularly in girls sports, which he predicts will see strong growth.Waller also see challenges on the horizon. Select teams have started to draw some athletes away from their school teams, he notes, which has had some impact on high school athletics. Overly zealous parents have also driven some coaches and referees away from youth sports. Probably the biggest challenge for Whidbey Island athletics, Waller believes, will be to meet the local demand for more places to play. “We’ve got a decided lack of facilities for athletics at all levels, both in the community and at the schools,” he says. “The future is going to put more pressure on that issue.””

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