By Dane Davis
This week, a group of business leaders and concerned citizens hosted a community economic forum, focusing on improving economic development in Langley and South Whidbey. The inspiration for the event came when a local store owner found that her son and daughter-in-law observed that Langley lacked jobs, businesses, and opportunities for young people.
As a 24-year-old economist working in the city of Langley, who unfortunately could not attend the event, I want to offer my insight into what the city government can do to make our village more attractive for younger professionals like myself. Attracting and retaining residents in their 20s and 30s is necessary for communities to survive, let alone grow. Younger residents bring energy, enthusiasm, and new ideas which are crucial in generating economic growth and keeping up the vitality of a city. Equally important, our demographic contributes important tax dollars and disposable income, improving the government’s finances and the ledgers of local businesses. For all of these reasons, the individuals behind the economic forum are quite right to identify this demographic as crucial for Langley’s continued prosperity.
So, how do we get them to live here? Let’s start with the wrong approach. It’s a fool’s errand to think that offering more businesses catering to youth, such as bars or coffee shops, can attract them here. Businesses are created to meet the needs of the community, not to define or determine what, or rather who, that community is. It’s true that if you are younger, there “aren’t enough things to do” here in Langley, but that is a symptom, not the cause of the problem. Bring enough young people in, and businesses and things to do will naturally emerge.
The key to bringing in young people is jobs, specifically entry level jobs that require a degree. Student loans are a particularly high burden for many in my generation, meaning that the high rents of the city are an unfeasible option for many. Yet, because of that degree, there is a preference to work in an office job of some sort. Langley, with its cheap rents relative to the city and open store fronts, has all of the ingredients to solve this problem. It can compete as a location for back offices doing support work for larger firms in Everett, Seattle, or even elsewhere in the nation.
While the village is essentially a tourist town, if it is to grow it needs to diversify away from an over reliance on the very fickle and volatile service sector. There are numerous back office functions that, thanks to the internet, can be outsourced. Langley should market itself aggressively to this demographic. At the very least, it should form an exploratory committee to see if businesses on the “mainland” would ever consider off-shoring some of their functions to Whidbey.
Why can I speak so confidently on this as a possibility? It is because this is exactly how I, born in Ohio, educated in Virginia and London, found myself in Langley. I have the fortune to work for an international business based in London who has a small back office presence here in Langley. It may seem unorthodox, but if Langley markets itself not only as a Village by the Sea but also as an office park by the sea, it might begin to bring in young people.
If you build it, some may come.