Jefferson County, Washington and The New Economy

by CoLab co-founder Frank DePalma

If you look at the national trends: over half of America’s workers either own or work for a small business, and small businesses have generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years. Small businesses create two out of every three new jobs in America, and are helping spur economic development in communities across the country.

The new economy is less dependent upon big employers where people work for years for a paycheck, and more dependent on project-based small businesses, telecommuters, and entrepreneurs. Nowhere is this more true than in rural America.


When our local department store closed its doors in 2011, a small group of us realized that we needed to replace it with a locally-owned alternative. Our citizens were driving out of town to buy staple products like socks and underwear, and spending their dollars (for these products, plus food and fuel), in these pantry communities rather than here at home. Luring a big box store here would only serve to siphon dollars out of our local economy even faster, and inevitably result in more boarded up local storefronts. 

Thus, my passion to join the group that eventually became the Quimper Mercantile board came from my desire to keep big box stores out of our unique community. 

Four years later we have a thriving store that has sustainable growth and is not only locally owned, but is actually owned by the community by virtue of a direct public stock offering allowing us to raise $700k in interest-free debt-free capital by selling shares to Washington State residents. 

This effort also managed to keep the big box stores at bay for at least a few more years. Of course, what I realized during the process was that our unique demographics here at the "end of the road" and our small numbers didn't pencil out for the big box stores anyway. 

The challenge of independence

As you drive through Jefferson County you will notice a lack of giant multi-national corporate logos distracting from the sparkling bays, soaring eagles and beautiful historic landmarks that our citizens have built. It's OUR town - all of us - and that's what makes it authentic. It is this unique demographic that drew many of us here in the first place. Unfortunately that independence can also make it difficult to find a family-wage job. 

I moved to Port Townsend in 1997 to work at one of our (many many) non-profits. And, as so many of us do, I supplemented my income by doing other projects such as freelance graphic design and eventually web design. 

Realizing that this type of project-based business worked well for me and my community, I transitioned from staff to volunteer at my "job" and started a web design firm that I've now built a 15-year career around. 

Strength in diversity

By employing three people each, 100 home-based businesses like mine provide 300 jobs with much, much less impact on the environment than a single 300-person employer. A majority of my clients are from outside of town, so my company is bringing outside dollars into the community with minimal infrastructure. All I really need to grow my home-based business is a dependable internet connection and a steady supply of pajamas. And thanks to NoaNet and Quimper Mercantile, I’m all set. 

Tourism is inevitable in such a beautiful place. And while it is a necessary way to grab outside money, tourism is heavily dependent upon forces beyond our community's control - such as ferry service, and the weather. By nurturing 100 diversified businesses across multiple industries, our local economy becomes more recession-proof and less dependent upon one company or any particular industry. 

One project at a time

In a project-based economy we work remotely from home offices and coworking spaces, or walk or ride our bikes to traditional offices. As projects ebb and flow, we are able to balance our time between work and family, and volunteer to fill in the gaps that the government and private sector cannot do in a small town. The new economy is growing fast across the country, and in this, rural communities have an advantage. With fast internet, telecommuters can finish an hour of coding while a traditional Microsoft employee sits in traffic on his way to Redmond. 

Our local entrepreneurs also have access to funds through local lending groups like LION, and have more access to local decision makers. The average citizen can get involved in the politics of this small pond, and indeed we do. Don't like the superintendent? Run for a school board position.  Got a problem with the parks? Run for city council.  Don't want to run for office? Go to a meeting, call someone... small town citizens have much more control over our destiny than we would if we lived in a larger urban environment. In the spirit of collaboration rather than strictly competition... the small-town lifestyle naturally attracts the entrepreneurs and telecommuters that want to contribute to a community, and do amazing work--one project at a time.

Supporting the independent workforce

A little over three years ago, Heather Dudley Nollette and I started exploring the idea of providing a physical place for these telecommuters, entrepreneurs, non-profits and independent thinkers to collaborate, share ideas, take workshops and help break the isolation that can come from being self-employed. Having celebrated The CoLab's first anniversary last week, we can already see real results as new ideas emerge and form new businesses; and as teams of young, brilliant visionaries share their hopes and concerns about our community. 

The young adults ages 25-40, who are the backbone of this cultural shift, are looking for a good community to start their businesses and raise their families. And we need to attract those families. 

This sparked my passion for helping the schools acquire the technology and the curriculum to support our kids in learning the skills they will need to compete in the global marketplace. 

Our kids are our future

In order to attract and retain young adults, we must have an effective school system. Even though our tax base is a fraction of that of larger cities, we pay the same for computers as anyone else. Resources can quickly become scarce. This can drive our working families away and deter others from moving here, thus amplifying the problem. I am working with the school district technology committee to get our teachers the tools they need to help high school graduates start a business and create a life in this safe, supportive and fun community. 

We need to generate more funds to get new technology, smaller class sizes, and more specialized curriculum. Like the project-based economy, project-based education is more diversified. Based on students' unique interests and ability, they can plug into robotics, business, history, performing arts, farming, marine trades--it's all right here. It takes time, hard work and a lot of money to buy the tools, train the teachers, and enlist the expertise to make that happen. And we need to develop new ways to measure success. But despite all that, I'm happy to report that it IS happening. More and more, our community is facing the challenges and working together to support programs like Students for Sustainability, the Maritime Discovery School Initiative, the new award-winning robotics program, and on and on. 

So, with building blocks such as fast internet and new community education programs--neither of which were a reality just one year ago--the creative, forward-thinking citizens of this area are working together every day toward smart, sustainable growth that will last for generations. 

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