It's a pattern chamber of commerce director Mitch Everton has seen many times in his adopted hometown: "First they buy the boat, then they visit Anacortes, then they move to Anacortes." Boats of one size or another draw most first-time visitors to this town on Fidalgo Island, the easternmost of Washington state's San Juan Islands and the only one connected to the mainland by bridge. For some, it's a sailboat or motorboat. For others, it's the jumbo Washington State Ferry they catch here to launch a vacation in those islands or into Canada.
Salmon canneries put Anacortes on the map in the 1890s, followed by sawmills, box mills, and pulp and plywood mills. As those industries declined, two petroleum refineries were built at the edge of town to turn Alaska crude into fuel, maintaining the area's blue-collar aura. But then boatbuilders migrated here, and that industry popped up where mills and canneries once stood. By the early 1990s, retirees, urban refugees, and developers had started snapping up century-old houses and undeveloped land. Suddenly Anacortes was more than a place to pass through to get to somewhere else.
Today, there's nary an empty storefront downtown at the north end of Commercial Avenue. Locals support a small but growing arts community, with a handful of galleries and a 114-seat theater that plays to packed houses. The 3-year-old library is a source of local pride, as are the schools, with test scores consistently above statewide averages. The 43-bed regional hospital is a solid source of jobs, second only to the refineries. Those refineries aren't much to look at, but they pay taxes, significantly offsetting the burden on residents. And Anacortes is a short, scenic commute to the U.S. Navy base on Whidbey Island.
“A pristine environment, aesthetically pleasing, a low crime rate, a great family town,” says Mitch, listing Anacortes’ draws. Then he adds one more: “very small-town Americana.”
(published October 2008)