Coast Chronicles: Best place to live in small-town America? - The PeninsulaBy Cate Gable
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Hoping something, sometime, will rub off on me, I wistfully opened my Money magazine this month and read about small-cap funds (recent winners over large-cap and growth); P/E ratios (stick with those below their five-year averages); dividends from solid performers (AT&T probably heads the list at 6.5 percent) and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (with inflation at 2.5 percent, TIPS yielding 1.84 percent aren't a bad investment right now).
It makes my eyes roll.
I close all the pages of charts, graphs and percentages and just sigh.
The one article I found relaxing was "100 Best Places to Live in America." It's an analysis that ranks small town living on five attributes that the magazine editors feel families care most about.
Their categories are jobs/economy, housing affordability, safety, education and leisure/arts. They consider the population of a 'small town' to be between 8,500 and 50,000.
Washington state comes off pretty well in this article, despite our small towns being hampered by an economy that's in the dumps.
Mukilteo, up north of Seattle and with a population of 20,500, made Money's top ranks coming in 10th. A typical Mukilteo single-family home costs $435,000; property taxes are $3,260; and the unemployment rate is 7.1 percent. Plus, they get high marks for "natural beauty and good schools."
In the top 100, Washington has four other winners: Sammamish (12); Newcastle (17); Richland (51) and Silverdale (92). Oregon didn't fare as well - making the rankings were only West Linn at 64th and Lake Oswego in 79th place.
But these numbers got me thinking about how our Peninsula would stack up against these towns. I wondered how we would fare given the criteria laid out by the Money editors.
So here are my own, mostly unscientific, guestimates about how our little corner of the world might have performed in their contest.
First, we definitely fit the "small town" criterion. Folks at the Long Beach Visitors Bureau indicate that we have a wildly fluctuating population. In the winter, full-time Peninsula residents clock in at around 10,000.
Summer folk, or maybe we should say "seasonal neighbors," balloon the Peninsula population to around 25,000 an increase of 250 percent. But that still puts us well within their 50,000 cut-off.
So, now we know - all of our small towns together are still 'small town.'
The next factor - jobs/economy - is probably our weakest area.
According to the most recent government figures for June, the unemployment rate for Pacific County is 12 percent. This is about three points higher than the national figure and it sounds pretty scary. But, believe it or not, that's an improvement over the past couple months.
Our all-time unemployment high for the county was 14.4 percent, registered in March of this year. For May it was 13 percent.
So we're trending into better territory, but we still have a lot of people out of work. As well, the kind of work we do have - low-paying jobs that support the tourism industry - aren't the kind that make it easy to keep a family afloat.
Add to that the fact that our year-round economy is natural-resource based - fisheries, timber, agriculture - and we happen to be living at a time on earth during the greatest environmental crisis mankind has ever faced.
(El Niño may deliver another hit to our failing salmon runs this year. Ocean acidification is taking a toll on oyster and crab. And on the phone with a fish expert the other day, I heard it unofficially stated "... the sturgeon are kaput." I'd like to see environmental and habitat restoration become our economic driver. Or how about pursuing alternative energy - wind and wave - and other light industry to get us back up on our financial feet?)
Affordable housing is a winning category for us. I figure a single-family home is three bedrooms, two bath, stick built. I spoke with Dennis Oman, broker and owner of Oman Realty, and DJ Bogue, broker/manager of Anchor Realty in Surfside, who both indicated that the price range for a 3BR/2BA on the Peninsula is between $160,000 to $240,000.
Part of affordable housing in the Money survey includes property taxes. Ours are in the middle range. According to the Pacific County Assessor's office, residential property taxes range between $9 and $11 per $1,000 of assessed value. This means property taxes on that single-family home price-range work out to between $1,440 and $2,640, which puts us near the top of the heap compared to the Money winners.
Only first place winner - Louisville, Colo., with typical home prices of $325,000 and property taxes of $1,590 - would score better.
I'm not sure how to rate safety and education. Money doesn't share their rationale on these factors, so I'll give us a neutral there.
But in the leisure and the arts category we would surely score well.
Scan through the Chinook Observer calendar section or check out events at funbeach.com to see the array of activities available to us - many of them free. Even if we can't get all the first run movies, we seem to be pretty clever at entertaining ourselves. We've got Lewis and Clark, multiple national and state parks, a top-notch museum, and lots of active community sponsors for music, drama, and arts events.
I give us high marks in the arts and leisure category.
And as for Mukilteo's "drop-dead gorgeous views of Puget Sound" - well, those Money editors should try Cape 'D' on a sunny day.
Overall, I'd say we've been cheated out of our top ranking in the best small town places to live. But, of course, this is a blessing in disguise and one that has brought us all here. We're not on the map - hurray.
And, anyway, living here isn't really about the numbers, is it?
I asked a few friends to answer the question "What is best about Peninsula living?" and here's what I heard:
From Sue Staples, an inveterate birder, "A whirlpool of swallows, eddies slowly overhead, one blue feather falls."
Mike Carmel, gardener extraordinaire and Tilth treasurer, "Old beauty, new friends, good air, gentle pace, caring community."
Rosemary Hallin, community volunteer for Camp Victory, "beautiful people - ocean, bay, forests together, living on the edge."Nansen Malin, Twitter Queen and Republican kingpin, "Beach house memories, salt air dunes salmon, oysters, place to come home to."
Those sentiments just about say it all.
Peter G. Petersen, co-founder of the Blackstone Group and multi-billionaire, has decided to give away most of his fortune and his friends are asking why. As an answer, he tells a sweet little story in the June 8, Newsweek, which I picked up in the Nahcotta Post Office magazine exchange box. (Thank you, neighbor, whoever you are, and let me add this to my list of what's best about living on the Peninsula.)
The story: Kurt Vonnegut is at a lavish hedge-fund manager's party (probably BC, before the crash) with Joseph Heller and he says, "Hey Joe, doesn't it bug you that this guy makes more in a day than you ever made on Catch 22?"
Heller says, "Nope. I have something he doesn't have. I know the meaning of enough."
So, views of Long Island and the Willapa Hills, the old growth cedars at Ellsworth Creek, fresh spring salmon, delicious water, few traffic lights, honest friends, walks on the beach, community volunteers, stars at night, space for a garden, elk, coyote, hummingbirds, the chance to write for a great little weekly - sounds like enough to me.
By my calculations, we live in the number one, top of the list, all-around best 'small town' in America. But let's just keep this to ourselves.