A Pearl in the Making
In Tonasket, Washington, a beautiful river valley town just 23 miles from the Canadian border, leaders are “thinking locally first.” This concept of economic development — keeping residents’ dollars circulating locally — was awakened when the town nearly lost their hardware store. “Our hardware store was destroyed in a fire,” recalls a designer of the Think Local First campaign. “The hardware store owner — now opening a new space after operating out of a shed for a full year — has been helped by this initiative. But these days it still seems to be counter-culture to think local first.”
“You see, in our community, we have only one small clothing store,” explains a local leader. “We do have two grocery stores, but 25 miles away there is a big box store, and needless to say, you can find anything you want there. So the Think Local First campaign is a way to get residents to procure things in our community first. Buy your groceries here, your gas here. If we buy locally, then our merchants will stay available to us. If we don’t, then they’ll go away and that cuts into our community’s assets.”
One resident explains, “When you shop in Tonasket, it takes a little longer, because you’re catching up on things. Everybody pretty well knows you — ‘course there’s good and bad with that.” This community member moved to Tonasket from Seattle. She says, “I didn’t know a soul when I moved here, but I liked the quiet. I liked the school and hospital. I have orchards right around my house, not too far from town. Well, it’s only a mile-long town, so it’s pretty easy to be outside of Tonasket.”
Approaching Tonasket, you wind through the Okanogan River Valley with its orchards of apples, pears and cherries. You are in the high desert here, and above or beyond small orchards are pine trees, cactuses and shrub steppe. Without irrigation, it would all be sagebrush. The region also boasts of 52,000 cows — more cows than people by 15 to one. Ranching, fruit agriculture and tourism are staples around Tonasket. The town also offers a hospital, nursing home, three gas stations … and beauty.
“Our beauty is a big selling point,” remarks a longtime resident, “and our schools — we have a great school system.” The town applied to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and secured funds directed at revitalizing education in small schools. Among other things, the Gates Foundation-sponsored Achievers Scholarship gives some of the town’s students full tuition for college.
Another unique aspect of the Tonasket area is the presence of a strong alternative lifestyle community, dating to the 1970s “back to the land” movement. These folks lead purposefully simpler lives, often living off the grid. Yet many of these people now also work in town and feel a part of Tonasket. Every October, this community puts on the Okanogan Family Fair that lasts for four days and attracts five to 10 thousand people from as far as California.
“But let’s face it,” says one longtime resident, “this is an area that is depressed, or close to it. There isn’t an awful lot to keep the young people here. Many people are unemployed over the long term. We didn’t get here overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight.”
Horizons, a community leadership development program sponsored by the Northwest Area Foundation, is giving the community new hope. Explains one person, “The training in how to be leaders awoke some people in our community.” In addition to leadership, the two-year program also focused on reducing poverty. Says one resident, “We talked about the concept of poverty at a deep level. It doesn’t just mean a lack of money. There can be a poverty of connections, a poverty of the spirit. We saw that there could be a poverty of skills, of abilities, even of desire. So we discussed the idea broadly and we are looking for solutions together.”
Another resident remarks, “What makes me proudest about the whole Horizons endeavor was the number of people who came together at different times and places throughout the process.” Tonasket leaders decided that the program should reach beyond their town to the entire school district, which encompasses a dozen smaller communities. A local bus driver boasts that his district’s joint bus routes cover more miles per day than any other district in the vast state of Washington. He says, “Most everybody had an opportunity to be involved, and that lays the groundwork for the sustainability of the effort.”
To continue the process started with Horizons, the community is setting up a 501(c)3 nonprofit. They have agreed to name the new organization The Greater Tonasket Community Association. Their purpose is to foster collaboration in leadership, partnership, community and poverty reduction in the greater Tonasket area. Says one leader, “We want to address some of the Horizons visioning work, especially the priorities we identified. Tonasket is a better place for that leadership work, but it’s always ongoing — kind of a pearl in the making.”
Residents might perceive a new awareness in town, but that is another process that, to some, seems slow. “People don’t want to lose the rural-ness of Tonasket’s lifestyle,” explains a community member, “yet they still want to attract industry that is non-polluting, that provides new jobs. That’s the quandary, keeping that balance.”
Another aspect of Horizons that carries forward (other than thinking locally) is the new business directory. A community member recalls, “One fact that kept coming up in our community visioning work was that we didn’t even know all the businesses in our surrounding area.” The new directory, naming nearly 80 civic organizations and close to 300 small businesses, is now available on the community’s Web site and in loose leaf-form at the business and resource center. Residents and travelers alike are able to easily see what is available in the community.
Many in the Tonasket community hold a vision for a vibrant future. The city plan looks backward to a turn of the century theme (1900) while the town looks forward (and the new hardware store keeps educating shoppers to buy locally). One leader expresses it this way, “My vision for our town in 10 years is that there’s an active downtown area drawing in people to shop and mingle — a kind of town center. I’d also like to see the area reaching out to the different groups in the greater community. We should recognize that we’re all here because we want to be here. We need to respect each other for who we are … Diverse yet united. It’s a vision worth working for.”