Study confirms hunch: people leave South Whidbey Island to shop

This map shows a proposed traffic plan for Clinton's commercial hub

Focus groups and online surveys confirmed what many on South Whidbey and in Clinton have said for years: people leave the island to shop.

Whether they’re heading to the malls in Everett, Lynnwood or Seattle or for professional services such as health care, plenty of people are willing to and do cross the water. This information was reported to the Port of South Whidbey by La Conner-based Beckwith Consulting Group owner Tom Beckwith and planner Steve Price on Thursday. Their recommended paths for Clinton’s rebirth were all complex: roundabouts as traffic control and place-making measures, changing perceptions of the area’s offerings and ease of access, and a community septic drain field.

The firm was hired by the port this past fall to conduct a market study of Clinton for a cost of $30,000.

Getting people to slow down and look around is one of the central elements to making the Clinton Rural Area of Intense Development, or RAID, —basically the commercial area along the highway from the ferry up to Bob Galbreath Road — a commercially viable place.

As has been discussed previously, informally by residents and shop owners and formally by the Clinton Community Council, getting traffic to slow down is key to reinvigorating Clinton’s core commercial area. Doing so will most likely require roundabouts, the design of which will be a complex, lengthy process involving Clinton leaders and property owners, Island County and the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Previous iterations have centered around a roundabout at the intersection of Highway 525 and Deer Lake Road. The planning experts at Beckwith, headed by Price, put forth a vision of two roundabouts on the highway near Wilson Place and Bob Galbreath Road.

Doing so will change the flow of traffic, in addition to slowing it down enough to give people time to look around. With a 30 mph speed limit on the highway until past Bob Galbreath Road, cars often zoom up and down the hill to and from the ferry.

“You’ve got to slow the traffic in Clinton, entering or exiting, or it doesn’t matter what you put along the highway,” Beckwith said.

“You’ve gotta have a strong sense of place or you won’t perform much better than you are now,” he added.

Along that corridor, between the roundabouts, a new sense of place would ideally be created. With some landscaped medians as well, the visual clues would cause drivers to slow down and pay attention. If nothing else, it would help better connect what the Clinton Community Council members have described as a bifurcated area of Clinton, split by the highway.

In leaving Whidbey, people take their money out of the county’s economy. The silver lining, according to consultants for the Port of South Whidbey, is that the responses also indicate they are willing to stay on the island if the right goods and services are available locally.

“If you’re needing dental services or clothing, you’re not going to find it on the island,” Beckwith said during a special workshop with the port district Thursday.

Convincing the public to stick around and essentially invest in their own community is the port’s challenge and goal.

The consulting group conducted a day of focus groups in early December. They met with people who identified as South Whidbey/Clinton residents, property owners, business owners and visitors. Their surveys, as well as those conducted online, showed them that people living on South Whidbey do not view taking the ferry to reach special services, such as health care and retail center as a barrier.

Those results came as no surprise to the port commissioners and reiterated the need to change public perception in order to help create a sense of place in Clinton.

“We’re trying to encourage a go-to place and a lot of people go to Clinton to get off the island,” Commissioner Ed Halloran said, adding that people say they want to shop here but their actions prove otherwise.

“The stores quit on them because (residents) won’t support them,” he later added.

The focus group surveys were part of a Clinton/South Whidbey market study financed by the port district. In an effort to identify ways of encouraging commerce and development, particularly in the Clinton commercial hub near the ferry terminal, the port contracted with Beckwith to look at shopping trends, discover residents’ and property owners’ perceptions and potential areas of growth.

You’ve got to slow down the traffic in Clinton, entering or exiting… .”

Tom Beckwith,

Beckwith Consulting Group

A leading reason for hope that people living on Whidbey could be swayed to spend their money locally is that the top answer for why they crossed the water was that they couldn’t get the goods and services in town.

One of the most complicated elements of Clinton’s possible commercial rebirth was the idea of a community septic drain field. It was previously discussed by the community council, but Beckwith looked further into the issue of turning Dan Porter Park, or at least a portion of it, into a large on-site sewer system. That would allow for different types of business and development to consider Clinton. It would require buy-in from the county, which owns the property, and developers to install the infrastructure.