The city seems on the cusp of greatness, primed to take advantage of its geographic good fortune — if it wants to.
NAMES MATTER. In 1791, presumably storm-battered Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza labeled the first safe-haven port he encountered on the Strait of Juan de Fuca “El Puerto de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles” — a heaven-sent respite from the roiling waters leading inland from the Pacific.
A couple centuries later, adventurers stumbling upon modern-day Port Angeles might opt for something shorter, and more appropriate. Like: “Cusp.”
It’s really a better fit. Take a gander from Google Earth: In the Northwest, a land defined by rugged, natural beauty, Port Angeles is not just on the cusp of something; it’s on the cusp of everything — ground zero for the diverse natural splendors most of us love.
The townsite, long occupied by native people, and since 1862 occupied by white settlers, enjoys the temperate climate that comes with an inland sea. Yet it sits at the fracture line where the still-wild Olympic Mountains break off and give way to the saltwater.
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Upshot: It is a short drive from here to some of the world’s most postcard-worthy outdoor destinations, most protected within the world biosphere reserve known as Olympic National Park: a newly freed Elwha River; thousands of miles of trails leading to alpine meadows ripe with wildflowers, wildlife and precious ice; auto destinations Hurricane Ridge, Lake Crescent and the legendary rain forests of the Sol Duc, Hoh, Bogachiel, Quinault and Queets rivers; to the southwest, the last stretch of undeveloped coastal oceanfront in the Lower 48 states.
These treasures make PA a true Port of Angels for outdoor lovers of all stripes. More than 3 million per year venture onto national park lands; most of them drive through — alas, often straight through — Port Angeles on the way.
Thanks to this geographical good fortune, PA keeps showing up on those national “best places to live” lists compiled by publications catering to adventure junkies and conservationists — those people who subscribe to “Outside” and wear Filson stuff more for the look than the longevity.
“Pound for pound, Port Angeles has the most diverse wilderness access of any town in the U.S. and is one of the only places where you could easily surf and snowboard (and possibly even kayak) in the same day,” raves the Matador Network, listing Port Angeles as one of the “20 Coolest Towns in the U.S.”
Similar praise can be found on a dozen other “best-town” lists, the most-prominent of which was published last year by Outside Magazine (told you), the unofficial literary journal of Patagonia Fleece Nation. Outside turned its best-town tourney into a popularity contest, tossing preidentified “cool towns” into an online, bracket-style elimination competition. PA residents mounted a furious get-out-the-vote campaign, and wound up finishing second to Chattanooga, Tenn., a town 10 times the size.
It was a shot of pride in the arm for a small town still struggling, three decades after the ax fell on once-profitable logging of surrounding state and federal lands, to rejigger its economy into something with family-wage-jobs staying power.
Was it a sign, city boosters wondered, that the town literally surrounded by raw beauty was finally on the cusp of long-sought civic greatness equal to its natural splendor? Might it be an omen that Port Angeles was finally about to become something more than, as a local pub server put it recently, “a somewhat nicer Forks?”
Maybe. A better question for a town long struggling with low household incomes, relatively high unemployment and a population that stubbornly clings below 20,000: Does it even want to be? And if so, what does that thriving, post-mill town look like?
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MANY PORT ANGELENOS have their own ideas about this, and not all of them are in sync. But there is a master plan, of sorts. Local leaders see PA in 20 years as a growing city with legacy job providers — the still-chugging single pulp mill, the Olympic Peninsula’s pre-eminent hospital, an active Coast Guard base, shipbuilding and marine trades — supplemented by next-generation manufacturing companies. The latter, city leaders hope, hope, hope, will be lured to PA’s idyllic location and increasingly idyllic low cost of living, compared with the increasingly unaffordable central Puget Sound region.
To avoid the fate of other Northwest post-timber towns that have slipped to destitute status, Port Angeles knows it can’t sit idle.
“It’s an imperative — we need to grow,” says Patrick Downie, PA’s unapologetically boosterish mayor. “Not just in jobs. We need to grow our overall tax base. We need to grow new residents. If you’re not growing, you’re getting behind.”
Many a U-Haul truck already is on its way, Downie believes — driven by people fleeing insane prices and mind-numbing traffic in the Seattle area, or relocating from other places after visiting and falling in love with the peninsula’s natural otherworldliness.
“We’re being discovered,” Downie insists, noting that new home sales are finally surging upward to match civic improvements. He makes a strong case for civic progress: The city recently upgraded its pleasant waterfront promenade, which connects to the 68-mile-long (and growing) Olympic Discovery Trail, and was thrilled to receive two private gifts to build a grand waterfront performing arts center.
“It’s a game-changer,” gushes Downie, 74, a longtime PA business owner who began his long tenure in town by opening a Baskin-Robbins scoopery in 1974.
The city’s educational bedrock, Peninsula College, is wrapping up a $72 million capital facilities program that has given the community college a modern look that seems refreshingly out of place in the graying old timber/maritime town. Olympic Medical Center — with 1,200 employees, the largest local employer — has expanded significantly to keep pace with all those pacemakers taking up residence in nearby retiree haven Sequim. PA is getting a new Navy supply facility, and is even about to lure its own semipro baseball team — a franchise relocating from Kitsap County.
“People are seeing a future for us,” Downie says. “They see us moving forward.”
(An aside: Seattle-area people have seen a future in PA for a long time. The town founded in 1862, in fact, really took off only after 400 disaffected Seattleites, presumably tired of sitting on horses through the Mercer Mess, in 1887 fled west to establish a utopian commune, the Puget Sound Cooperative Community. Settling along Ennis Creek, the group, led by two Seattle attorneys virulently opposed to Chinese labor, built the first sawmill and other landmarks adjacent to a community of several hundred Klallam natives. This “utopia,” like most, collapsed after only a few years, but modern PA grew in its footprint.)
No promises of utopia are made today. But Downie believes Seattle-area people will take a gander at a new website, visitportangeles.com, fall in digital love and start crafting an exit plan. How much longer, he wonders, can people stand to sit in traffic and work 80 hours a week to keep a roof overhead? (The median home price in Seattle is about $585,000, or $500,000 in King County. Eighty miles west in PA? A little more than $200,000.)
HIS OPTIMISM is shared, perhaps not quite so exuberantly, by local economic-development officials who also acknowledge the accompanying challenges. The same unfinished, out-there persona that makes Port Angeles attractive to residents can be a challenge to businesses that must operate in something of an economic bubble.
“First of all, this is timber country — and forever has been,” says Bill Greenwood, a longtime Seattleite and accomplished business executive who now heads the PA-based Clallam County Economic Development Corporation. Some locals still cling to hope that logs will begin to flow once more from local forests, once the endangered marbled murrelet goes the way of the dodo bird. Greenwood is not counting on that.
“What I’m naturally trying to do is to get an economy that’s more balanced. And a lot of good things are starting to happen.”
The city, for example, is becoming an attractive alternative for marine trades companies, beyond existing Port of Port Angeles tenants such as Westport Marine, which builds luxury yachts, and Platypus Marine, which does large-scale ship haul-out and repair, Greenwood says.
“We’re a deep-water port,” he notes. “There are a lot of companies in and around Seattle that either have run out of space on the waterfront, or their workers have been priced out of homes, so they have to live an hour away from where they’re working. In Port Angeles, you can work at a marine trades company and live five minutes away.”
Greenwood points to the town’s successful positioning as a center for composites manufacturing (Angeles Composite Technologies, Inc., employs 105, with plans to more than double its workforce.). Local governments, along with partners including Peninsula College and Olympic College in Bremerton, have formed a nonprofit Composite Technology Recycling Center — an attempt to create and capitalize on a market for reuse of “pre-impregnated” composite materials.
The flexibility of the college allows Greenwood to tell interested businesses: “They will design a training program to your specs.”
To date: numerous nibblers, few big biters. But Greenwood is optimistic that the city will grow with a boost in tourist-catching hot spots, an influx of telecommuting refugees and new light manufacturing.
WHY HASN’T this happened already? In one of the fastest-growing U.S. states, Port Angeles’ population has been essentially flatlined, just below 20,000, for two decades. Possible answers: The recession hit hard. And there’s some general inertia.
The town suffers from common symptoms of struggling economies: low wages (PA median household income in 2013 was $40,000, compared with $58,000 in the state and about $73,000 in King County.). Worrisome levels of drug abuse. Difficulty passing school tax measures, particularly construction bonds. A lack of skilled workers. And vituperative local politics that have turned the focus more on what the town should not be doing than what it might.
The most-recent political flashpoint: a protracted, stultifying battle over public-water fluoridation. Determined fluoride opponents waged a decadelong campaign that culminated in an attempt to toss out the toothy city council and its “Fluoride Four,” of which Downie was a member. Fluoridation recently was suspended pending a public advisory vote next year. But the fight became so ugly that The Peninsula Daily News proclaimed, in an exasperated editorial, “The issue has gone beyond fluoridation to the question of whether democracy works in Port Angeles.”
A far more practical obstacle to progress is outside residents’ control: After a 2003 pullout by Horizon Airlines and a recent departure by Kenmore Air, Port Angeles has no daily air service to or from perfectly capable Fairchild International Airport. Today, all Port Angelenos who wish to travel anywhere must make the long trek to Sea-Tac. It’s a major obstacle to attracting those potential work-from-anywhere digital settlers, Greenwood acknowledges.
Once that service resumes, he and others believe, PA will leave the cusp, reconnect with the world and flourish. But like many other facts of life in Clallam County, this is a chicken/egg economic question.
NOT EVERYONE is content to wait for the skies to reopen. The cash source that PA residents can tap, right now, is all that tourist traffic. Two keys here: getting eco-touring Peninsula visitors to stop and spend more time (and money) beyond an impromptu search for the grave of former resident and somewhat legendary short-storyist Raymond Carver (tip: He’s up in Ocean View Cemetery), or that traditional, half-hour Duraflame log stock-up stop at Swain’s department store. And convincing more people to visit in the offseason.
An obvious key to both is revitalization of the town’s quaint seaside, downtown blocks — yes, these exist, folks — which quietly began about five years ago.
Today, visitors who wander midday along First Street might see something once a rarity in PA — a line to get into something, rather than getting out of town to Victoria, B.C., on the MV Coho. This queue forms at mealtimes outside Next Door Gastropub, and if you can get a table, you’ll learn what the fuss is about: delectable, locally sourced pub grub, with unexpected touches such as grass-fed meats, local mushrooms, craft cheeses and microbrews.
The pub was the brainchild of Jacob Oppelt, a native who left the city as a young man and has returned to start his own businesses. A third-generation local businessman, Oppelt, in partnership with his sister, Angela, launched Next Door in 2011, and considers the now-thriving business the first act in a strong play to remake downtown. He’s also a partner in purchasing and restoring the stately old Lincoln Theater, on a prominent downtown corner, with designs to open it as a throwback theater/music venue. (Macklemore, if you’re listening, Oppelt thinks he could clear a spot for you to play the grand opening.)
Five years ago, “We didn’t have a very good scene downtown,” says Oppelt, 32. “I just started with the concept of giving people a place that’s kind of hip, good vibe, good atmosphere. It was just something we were lacking.”
Customers agreed. “Every year’s been substantially better than the last,” Oppelt says.
He believes the downtown area, too, is on the cusp — just an attractive downtown hotel (some plans are in the works) away from becoming more of a destination than an afterthought. It’s exciting for members of his generation who accept that tourism can, and should be, a central focus of PA’s future.
Oppelt’s only concern: “I’m afraid it’s going to happen too quick,” he says with a chuckle, noting the costs — higher cost of living and other side effects — of progress. “But I would welcome it,” he adds. “It’s a crucial time in our city’s future for what’s to come. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
THIS, OF COURSE, is the omnipresent conundrum of the small, ambitious, beautifully situated Western rural town. Growth in numbers and tax dollars is necessary to provide quality civic services; too much spoils the local character and prices out the locals.
But Oppelt is confident the town’s close-knit structure can preserve a balance between small burg and growing city.
“The sense of community here is great,” he says.
Bruce Skinner, another native who has returned after many years away, agrees. People who appreciate the area’s physical beauty probably don’t see the small-town strength lying beneath, he says.
“There’s definitely a good spirit to the town,” says Skinner, 68, a 1966 Port Angeles High School graduate who moved away to become the coordinator of major sports events including marathons and college football’s Fiesta Bowl. “Port Angeles has one high school and one middle school. You have a lot of people all rooting for the same kids.”
It creates a townie bond that translates into a remarkably deep strand of volunteer spirit, says Skinner, an events consultant who also is the executive director of a major local charity effort, the Olympic Medical Center Foundation.
He shares the belief that the city long on the cusp is one or two substantial employers away from advancing from small town to, if not surging city, something comfortably in the middle. And that would be just fine with most Port Angelenos — even the hyper-enthusiastic Downie.
“I don’t aspire to be Bellevue West,” he says. “Nor do I aspire to be anything we ought not to be. But there’s no reason we can’t be a truly great small town.”