With hopes of ushering in a new age of prosperity, Langley officials will hold the first of three planned economic forums next week.
The series, which will run through November, is expected to host a wide variety of stakeholders, from business owners and government leaders to city residents.
The idea is to get everyone together and provide the framework for a long-term action plan focused on economic development, said Rene Neff, a city councilwoman and forum organizer.
“We’ve invited as many stakeholders as we could think of,” Neff said. “This is sponsored by the city but this is really the community’s event.”
The first meeting will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10, at the Methodist Church on Third Street and Anthes Avenue.
Subsequent forums will be held in October and November.
Neff, who also owns a business in town, said the need for such a forum was hatched when her son and daughter-in-law returned home from three years in Africa. They quickly noted several empty storefronts and that the city lacked opportunities that would attract and retain a younger demographic.
“They want to live here but there aren’t enough things to do,” Neff said.
Vacant buildings, few living-wage jobs — these are existing challenges that can be overcome with planning, coordination and community vision, she said.
The city council was quick to endorse a plan that pro-actively addressed the issue and Neff and fellow Councilman Bruce Allen have worked together ever since to plan the forums.
Tuesday’s event will include presentations from several community leaders: Langley Main Street Association’s Janet Ploof will discuss empty storefronts, Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Chris Jerome will talk about the district’s master plan, Lynn Willeford is set to discuss lending on Whidbey Island and Carrie Whitney will speak about investing in arts and culture.
Some Langley business owners are applauding the city’s move to tackle economic development head on.
“I’m glad to see they are stepping up,” said Michele LaRue, a longtime First Street merchant. “I think we’re all looking for some answers and it will be good to have everyone in the same room.”
LaRue’s sister recently closed her store, The Cottage, after 38 years in business. While LaRue said she retired after a long and successful run, the economy was a factor in her sister’s decision to lock the doors.
Business has been sluggish in recent years and LaRue is “curious and thankful” for the opportunity but plans for the future still have to make sense, she said.
Economic development is a worthy and necessary ambition but it shouldn’t come at the expense of Langley’s great strengths, such as its small-town charm, she said.
“It has to be balanced,” LaRue said.
Others are less optimistic.
Bob Trenchard, also a business owner, said at last week’s city council meeting that similar meetings have been held in the past and little came of them.
Trenchard could not be reached for additional comment Thursday. Others, however, may also share the concern that the forum will be nothing more than talk.
Mayor Fred McCarthy is supportive of the forums and doesn’t want that to happen. He is eager to hear from stakeholders about what they think needs to happen.
He’s looking for ideas but also to identify leaders who might serve on a “blue-ribbon commission,” which he hopes to organize next year.
The group would be dedicated to economic development and would work to implement some of the plans laid during the forums.
“It’s a natural lead-in for forming a formal group,” McCarthy said.
She believes this is “an opportunity to really talk with people” and have an objective discussion about where things stand now, what the future could hold and, most importantly, how to get there.
There are lots of good ideas out there, but follow through will be key, she said.