Marshall: ‘Don’t be fooled, slower growth is still growth’

If you didn’t catch Becky Fox Marshall’s latest column in the Islander, read it below. This week, Marshall warns that the island’s recent population growth slowdown doesn’t mean growth has halted, nor does it mean we should stop planning for growth.

Don’t Be Fooled, Slower Growth Is Still Growth
By Becky Fox Marshall

I’m not sure who said it, but one of my favorite journalism quotes (besides “Journalism is the art of filling space”) goes like this: “The trouble with public meetings is that the public tends to show up.”

Of course it’s said tongue in cheek, by wise old editors, because the public also tends to grant journalists great quotes, most often without even trying.

I was in a public meeting recently and one of the attendees said, “Bainbridge isn’t growing.” The remarked moved through the room like a slow ripple, sending up an audible groan among new and native alike.

I speak from experience when I claim that two things have been a constant on this island for the past 50-plus years — growth and controversy (and most often, those two have been connected).

And then, lo and behold, we are treated with the news this week that this year, the island’s growth has dropped from an average of about 2 percent to less than 0.5 percent.

But let’s put this in perspective — that is an eight-year low. So for eight years, the island’s growth has been steady and sure and steep. State demographers, as reported in the Sun, put the island’s 2008 population at 23,180, up by only 100 souls from the previous year.

When I left the island for college, it consisted of incorporated Winslow (maybe 4,000 people?) and the rest of the island — unincorporated and under the jurisdiction of Kitsap County government. The island had one traffic light, at the ferry terminal very controversial — it was a blow to those who longed to stay rural and let it all happen “organically,” sound familiar?) and plenty of room for unofficial trails and access — a combination of a low population, and a population familiar with one another and rather casual and generous when it came to people “trespassing.”

I returned in the mid-1980s to a discovered place — where traffic lights multiplied and the population grew less casual and considerably less generous, in direct correlation with being less familiar with one another. But people said it wasn’t really growing.

By the year 2000, the island’s population (according to a referenced Wikipedia entry) was 20,300. In 2006, it was estimated to be 22,178. And now 23,180 — if that isn’t steady growth, then I am not sure how we want to define it.

Even if you can’t get your hands on the numbers, all you have to do is look around at the construction to see that the island is growing. In 1996, 161 building permits were secured for the island; 178 the next year, and the number climbed steadily until it hit a high of 238 buildings in the year 2000. Then the number goes up and down between 107 and 161 buildings until the lowest — last year — 83 buildings.

So while I greet this news with some relief, I hope we, as a community, make the distinction between slower growth and no growth.

We continue to grow, albeit at a slower rate, but the growth is real. The island will not look like it does now in 10 years. It can’t. So we still have to plan for the growth we’re sure to get, because all the wishful thinking we can muster won’t freeze us in time. We wanted it to be true in the ‘80s, and nearly three decades later find ourselves well into this new century needing to make real decisions, called upon to create a vision for the future. We can’t say no to everything, or yes to everything. But we have to address it, for sure.

It begins with facing reality and asking just what kind of community we intend to be, and intend to become, decades from now.

And so, having filled this space in accordance with the greatest traditions of my calling, I say to the public bound to show up at those public meetings — If you think the island isn’t growing, you haven’t been here long enough.

Stick around. I promise you it will feel completely different in 20 years. I hope we recognize it.

Becky Fox Marshall is a longtime island journalist.