Over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend time in a couple of western Washington’s most-popular destination points for day trips or extended stays: La Conner in Skagit County and Langley on Whidbey Island.
Both are waterside towns with some interesting history, and both are pedestrian- and shopper-friendly. Their main thoroughfares boast casual shopping of both the practical and boutique variety, restaurants, cafes, bars, coffee shops, museums, locally made goods, lovely scenery and a bucolic setting. I enjoyed just walking the streets and taking it all in.
While the towns are not “themed” in the way that Winthrop is, they feel like old-fashioned places. Both consistently take advantage of their vintage buildings and keep them attractively spruced up. You have to have a high-quality appearance to draw people inside your doors on a busy afternoon when amblers are clogging the sidewalks.
Of course, there are other destinations that appeal to travelers looking for a similar experience: Leavenworth, Coupeville, Poulsbo, the San Juan Islands, Port Townsend and Snohomish among them. They work hard to create a sense of stepping back in time to a more leisurely pace of life (which may be an illusion, but one we like to embrace).
This is the universe in which Winthrop wrangles for destination-seekers. Its disadvantage is that it’s not a great day trip option from the west side. Which is also its advantage: Once you arrive, there are lots of reasons to stay, and that attraction extends to the entire Methow Valley.
Maybe Winthrop would have evolved in a Langley- or La Conner-like way without Westernization, but likely not. The Methow Valley would still be a recreational wonderland with unmatched scenery, but perhaps without as many people who simply want that low-key, leisurely strolling around experience. Those people leave a lot of money here.
The context for these ruminations is, you guessed it, the future of Westernization in Winthrop, which seems a little uncertain right now. I won’t revisit the past few month’s controversies, but however you feel about the issue the result is the same: the resignations of nearly the entire Westernization Design Review Board (WDRB), in part because they no longer believed the town’s powers-that-be would back them, have left Westernization in something of a limbo until a reconstituted WDRB gets up to speed. It will be a new group, trying to get is footing and learning quickly while considering requests for exemptions or changes in the Westernization code.
The prevailing message from the mayor and Town Council seems to be support for Westernization in theory, but with a “progressive” view as to how that should be manifested. Only time will tell what that means.
Like many of Westernization’s most ardent supporters, I fear backsliding. Every time I hear someone acknowledge the power of Westernization while at the same time questioning its requirements, I wonder what they would suggest to compete with Langley, La Conner and the others if authenticity takes a back seat to modern practicality.
Kristen Smith, who recently resigned after several years the town’s marketing director (working through the Chamber of Commerce), relentlessly promoted Winthrop’s unique combination of western ambiance and wide-open spaces to play in. There is no denying the results. The town’s revenues from hotel and motel taxes, and retail sales taxes, have been on a steady upward trajectory. You can get all the anecdotal and observational evidence you need by walking through town on a busy summer weekend. There’s a reason why so many visitors risk life and limb to take photos while standing in the middle of the four-way stop.
Steve Oulman, the former WDRB member who was the main author of the revised Westernization code adopted in 2017, said a couple of things (more than once) that stuck with me: Westernization is a marketing strategy, not a historical recreation. It doesn’t mean getting rid of cars or electricity or other modern necessities, but it does mean preserving the illusion as much as possible. And, Oulman noted, none of us will be able to predict what might harm or help the appeal of Westernization until we try it. The question that obviously follows: How to undo harm, if that’s the outcome?
Winthrop inhabits a brutally competitive arena for tourism dollars, and every community that can claim some kind of distinction is chasing those greenbacks. More than 45 years after its debut, Westernization remains a powerful draw. But if you ever want to experience what Winthrop is up against, spend a day in Langley.