Sound Off: Built to last, and well worth a million bucks

Living in Central Whidbey, I have always thought that having all those historic structures in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve was worth a million bucks, and now thanks to the wisdom and generosity of our governor and state legislature they’re worth a million more.

It’s all the unexpected positive result of last year’s otherwise sad and unsuccessful talks with the Navy about how to mitigate the expected effect in this historic area of a 400 percent increase in Growler jet flights over Central Whidbey in the next few years. Despite their failure, those talks attracted a lot of attention far and wide – especially in Olympia.

Lots of people across the state and the world know the reserve and love its historic structures, and last year some in state government finally became much better aware that time takes its toll, and many of those structures are in serious need of big investments to stabilize and save them for generations to come. And they also have learned that such huge investments are simply beyond the capability of this small community; we needed help from our statewide community and this year we got it.

The legislature added $1 million to the current state budget to fund grants for historic preservation projects in the reserve and the winners were announced in Coupeville on Tuesday.

I suppose some will grouse about “their” taxpayer money being spent to repair and preserve what are, in some cases, privately owned structures. But that misses the point. The reserve and all that’s in it belongs to all of us – to admire, visit, use, enjoy and love. This state money to pay for needed repairs that are beyond the means of a tiny community and its small business owners is a fair price to pay to protect a larger common legacy.

Imagine Coupeville without its wharf, built in 1908 for farmers to ship their produce to Seattle on Mosquito Fleet ships and now the favored spot for visitors from around the globe to take a stroll and admire the views. Or the Captain Whidbey Inn, built in 1907 as a “family camp” and now a popular overnight place for Millennials and Boomers alike. Or Toby’s Tavern, built in 1860 as the Whidbey Mercantile building and now the place we tell everybody to go have a beer while they’re in town. Or the Coupeville United Methodist Church, built in 1894 and the place that has baptized, married and buried generations of local citizens. Or the Haller House on Front Street, a rare example of territorial Washington residential architecture whose construction was begun in 1859 and is now undergoing a restoration as a visitor center.

The fact is, we can’t imagine any of that because these and the other projects receiving the $1 million in state preservation grants are our cultural landmarks, the touchstones that tell our story and bind us together as a community. They are the heart of us.

For more than a century, these structures have passed through many incarnations and owners. A dry goods store is now the town’s most popular tavern. A confectionary and bakery is now a bookstore. A fruit-drying plant is now a wine-tasting shop. Because the state is wisely making an investment in their future today, they will undoubtedly have more incarnations and owners and admirers in the century to come.

The miraculous thing is that so many of these landmarks in the reserve are still standing. The reason they are is simple: Lots of effort was put in by good people who recognized the historical significance long ago, and they fiercely fought to protect it. Forty years ago, the community came together to insist that the historic assets of Central Whidbey be protected. They lobbied and persisted until Ebey’s Reserve was created by Congress as our country’s first national historical reserve.

You see, history has to be protected or you will lose it. (Are you listening, Oak Harbor?) Central Whidbey has done just that for at least the last half a century, and that’s why it’s getting this precious help from the taxpayers of Washington today to make sure that history is available for many generations to come.

• Harry Anderson lives in Central Whidbey and has served on the Historic Preservation Commission and Trust Board for Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

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