Opinion

Will outside forces darken our nirvana?

Bainbridge Island has been enjoying an economic nirvana during much of the last 30 years, flourishing primarily because of the seductive charm it holds for Seattleites who have chosen it as their favorite suburb. The infatuation hasn’t waned, but outside forces are now threatening to darken the tranquility of even Bainbridge Island.

Only slightly, perhaps, but that’s saying something.

No one living in the rest of Kitsap County is going to shed a tear for islanders if an elongated downturn or even a recession doesn’t spare Bainbridge as it has in the past. There are few economic similarities between the island and, say, Bremerton or Port Orchard, and one could argue that the plush life will continue here for a long time.

Consumers throughout the country, however, have begun to spend less as they read more and more about the fallout of the sub-prime fiasco and the plight of the economy in general. Let’s detail two obvious harbingers of a slumping island economy: the real estate market and retail sales.

Sales definitely have slowed down during the last several months for the smaller specialty stores, but it all depends on the product. Travel and bicycle stores are doing great, for example, while gift stores are needing to sharpen pencils a bit to stay competitive.

After all, there are tons of options out there for shoppers, whether they travel to Silverdale, Seattle or online. There has been a closure or two but the spaces have been filled quickly. But while business isn’t exactly booming, there is no sign of a stalled economy on the island.

There is a trend downward for the real estate market, though no one is standing near the panic button. Multiple housing/condo listings indicate there were 454 sales in 2006 and 332 in 2007 – though a record number sold in the first six months. Through March 13 of this year, sales of 19 houses and 10 condos closed. The average sale was just over a million, but the median was only $700,000 because two Manzanita homes sold for $6.2 million and $4.68 million. As an indicator of island wealth, one realtor guessed there are perhaps 50 island estates that are in the $4 -to $20-million range. The smallest sale this year was for $340,000, and the number of condo sales continue to decrease.

The decline has caused island builders to scramble, too, as many million-dollar spec homes built in the second half of 2007 are still sitting vacant. Most builders, however, operate on a small scale and have turned more to custom work, a market that hasn’t slowed much.

So what’s happening? One theory is that the economy is influencing sales here because a buyer often has to sell a current holding before moving into a new abode. Most island buyers aren’t first-time homeowners so the sub-prime problem probably isn’t the leading culprit here.

Perhaps buyers of island houses are simply choosing to embrace their conservative side: being selective either because the current situation has lowered prices and rates too such a level that they are now awaiting the market’s bottom to surface; or they’re inflicted with buyer’s paralysis because of the dreary economic news now flooding the media.

Are islanders asking, “what, me worry?” Perhaps not, but at least pay attention. We are not an island unto ourselves.

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Clarification

•The March 12 article on Bainbridge in the 1970s omitted filmmaker Scott Taylor’s contact information. Anyone with stories or archival material to share can contact Taylor at bi70@seanet.com.

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