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Riding the Tiger: Town Planning at a Crossroads

Essay by Kenneth Munsell

Growth – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

I SAW GEORGE at the lumber yard a week or so ago. He lives in Roslyn, a nearby small town in the mountains. He moved there perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, bought a house cheap and has survived, perhaps even prospered, since that time. The picturesque, old, coal-mining community fell on hard times after the mines closed in the late 1950s. Many residents even locked their homes and just walked away — who’d want to buy a house there? The town became virtually a ghost town.

I had the opportunity in the early 1970s to buy a house up there (the area is called Upper County because it’s up in the Cascade Mountains) for about $3,000. I declined. I not only didn’t have the money, but I couldn’t see any reason to live there. Oh, have I regretted that decision! Those same houses are selling for $100,000 or more today and soon their value will be much higher.

I even knew antique dealers who would buy the contents of a house, sight unseen, and unlock the front door for the first time in 30 years when they came with their trucks to haul the stuff away. I believe that George entered the housing market a little later, but I know he didn’t spend too much for his place.

After the mines closed, the lumber industry went bust, and the population plummeted further. Little happened there for decades and Roslyn seemed stuck in time. Hollywood used the town as a backdrop for a movie 20 years ago and the entire town became the set for a television series about a decade ago. Still, little changed except for families moving to town because they wanted to live cheaply — but well — by doing odd jobs, cutting their own wood for heat, and canning vegetables from their gardens. People who wanted to reconnect with the land liked the town’s slow ambiance and felt comfortable.

That’s all going to change and it is going to change in a big way. The problem is that the community lies just too near the Seattle metropolitan area — just 80 miles away and over the mountains. City people can travel there in an hour and a half using a four-lane interstate highway.

Economic development has arrived in the form of a large, planned destination resort bankrolled by a major recreation development company. It will feature homes, condos and golf courses and market itself to the wealthy. If the company builds out as expected, the development will double the population of Upper County and the growth pressures on the nearby incorporated communities will be enormous.

GEORGE IS WORRIED, and many of the people who moved there to drop out of the bustle of urban society are also worried. George, probably correctly, sees his lifestyle changing — perhaps even ending. He’s scared and wants the resort stopped — completely and immediately.

But, another faction in Roslyn — many of these people from old families who stayed through the hard times when the mines closed and the lumbering ended and the mills shut down — want the development. They say that, after so many lean decades, local kids will finally be able to find jobs and won’t have to move away to the city. They also hope that all of the social ills that come with a hard, poverty-level lifestyle — and they are very familiar with those ills — will be lessened as money flows into the economy.

How can these factions reach a compromise? It looks like they can’t. The gulf that splits the town is too wide. George asked me why I hadn’t spoken out against the resort. When I told him that I wasn’t going to, he bitterly said that I had better get my pen out to write the community’s obituary and abruptly ended the conversation.

“Just say no” is a position that just doesn’t work. Virtually all of the case study literature, including many articles published through the years in Small Town, points out that, in good economic times when people have money for projects, growth and change are inevitable. It’s all about economics. That resort is coming because there are plenty of people who will use it, large amounts of money can be made from it, and the land and location near the mountains are suitable for it.

It is absolutely true that the spin-off effects will mean higher land and house valuations and more people wanting to move to the nearby communities. They will become different places. Many long-time residents who lived a viable back-to-the-land lifestyle are going to pay more taxes and find their lifestyle unaffordable.

I THINK THESE ARE terrible consequences and I mourn the loss of the community’s special ambiance, but change is inevitable. Communities always change and that is a fact of life. Roslyn’s elderly residents know that — they’ve seen plenty of hardships and they are looking forward to the end of them. They also saw the profound changes brought by the exodus of high-paid union workers and the influx of back-to-the-landers. It is ironic that, when looked at from the long perspective of history, dramatic change is the norm for Roslyn; yet, those quiet decades at the end of this century gave people a notion that things would always stay the same.

In the face of economic pressures, citizens have only one alternative. People who live in communities affected by growth must hop on board and ride the tiger. They must coƶperate in order to guide the growth into directions that are the least detrimental to the values that they cherish.

This option won’t stop change — only bad economic times will do that. However, only by cooperation can residents develop the ability to forge the compromises that can save the important or sacred aspects of the community. They won’t get everything, but they will have the opportunity to guide change instead of letting it consume them.

I know this solution seems like a bitter pill to the people who want their community to stay static. But, their zealousness to preserve may, in the end, actually destroy what they want to save. Accommodation means modification of the old, comfortable lifestyles. But, it is the only way that they can save a part of those lifestyles.

Kenneth D. Munsell is the director of the Small Towns Institute, which publishes the journal Small Town. This is reprinted with permission. For more information, you can contact the institute at P.O. Box 517, Ellensburg WA 98926, 509-925-1830.