It’s summer. Ah. It’s summer and the Island County Fair (actually the Whidbey Island Area Fair, but I like the old name) happens to happen about nine miles from my house. Of course I go to it. A frugal life is not about spending as little as possible, though sometimes it works out that way. And, having fun is sometimes the best way to connect with community, and maybe even create some business. And spot pervasive trends. All for $8.
For $8 I get to wander around:
- Fair food (which should be a separate culinary category worthy of study),
- amusement park rides that can fit onto a flat bed trailer (not like Kennywood Park at all),
- the 4-H stalls (where I saw one finely coiffed person try batting away aromas that upset her sensibilities,
- the commercial barn (where friends and strangers staff booths selling, advocating, and publicizing slices of America),
- music (ah, but where’s a dance partner when you need one),
- people, people, people (the best part of the show, particularly the major cuteness brigade.)
The Island County Fair is just about the right size. There are grander fairs in the area, and if the Island County Fair tried to get that big it would no longer be just Island County. Too big and it takes to long to take it all in. Too small and it isn’t worth taking the time to take it in. The Fair hasn’t changed much over the eleven years I’ve been able to attend. Sure, regulars can highlight the nuances, but it remains a place to check on what’s happening. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to eat a corn dog, maybe an elephant ear (though not since I went gluten-free, sadly), or an over-stuffed baked potato. In about three hours I saw the continuation of traditions, noticed a few changes in fashion, and stumbled across two technological advances that couldn’t have been part of the Fair even a few years ago.
When a trend shows up at the Island County Fair, you know it is pervasive.
The Arts and Crafts building held the usual dioramas made for school projects. They have to be appreciated for what they are, creations in cardboard and tape with a bit of paint and glue. One unexpected competition was the duct tape challenge. What could you make from duct tape in a few hours? Whether it was brown paper or silver tape, I doubt I could’ve done much better. The surprise though, was the new sign outside: Robotics. It is now considered normal for kids to make robots, sophisticated robots that operate and compete underwater. I’d like to volunteer my time considering my degree in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, but I suspect the kids know more about the practicalities. Of course, I could learn a lot that way.
When robotics have reached the Island County Fair competition it probably means they’ll be everywhere soon.
The other futuristic yet very current exhibit was the high-speed Internet service being introduced to the island. The local phone company, Whidbey Telecom, was demonstrating the high bandwidth service that is already being installed (but not in my neighborhood for a while.) In the booth, they were able to get over 9 Gig. The last time I checked my service at home it maxed out at 70 Meg. I pay extra to handle online meetings with clients (which just happens to mean I rarely have to watch Netflix or YouTube buffering.) That service is more than 100 times my current service. It will probably be more expensive, but I doubt it will be 100 times the price. Ah, but how much more will I pay? I’ll wait until I see the brochure.
Islands and any small town economies have been difficult. As I wrote recently about small town markets and economics, the best way to run a business is to have clients and customers who live outside the community. They tend to get a better price because island living can be cheaper than city living (at least in some ways). The small town economy is improved because money is introduced rather than simply recirculated. Frequently, the problem is finding and implementing a business model that matches the internal supply to the external demand. Especially for Whidbey, that quickly limits anyone selling any products that can’t be shipped easily. This is not the place for a car manufacturing plant.
Robotics and remote occupations minimize some of those issues while amplifying other aspects. One variation on robotics is programming. Build the robots somewhere else, write the software here. One variation on robotics flips that model. Getting things to the island can be more expensive, so use a robotic printer, a 3-D printer, to build things here. The students were demonstrating that, too. Ship over some material, and create what’s needed where it’s needed. If something novel is created (and this is a creative place), sell the information about how to create that creation. Remote occupations don’t even need machinery beyond computers. Provide high-speed Internet and anyone who can work from home can work from the island. Crank up the speed high enough and make it easier, more efficient, and cheaper to work from the island than from the city. Instead of trying to keep up with the competition, pass them and make those other communities the alternative and this community the preferred solution.
I’m particularly aware of the 3-D printing and remote business model because of my history. I was lucky enough to get to work with 3-D printing at Boeing in about 1990. My main clients are remote, and I’m very aware of the possibilities and limitations of operating a business from the island. Put the two together and I can see how Whidbey Island could finally have revenue streams that don’t rely on waiting on tourists. More people might even be able to afford to live here, even before they’re retired.
The Island County Fair is like many fairs, ostensibly there for fun but also purposeful showplaces of an area’s economy, sustainability, and a reminder of community. A hundred years ago, there was Fair food, rides, livestock, hucksters, entertainment, and people; but there was also technology: tractors, lighting, and maybe a phonograph. As much as county fairs seem like places to kick up some hay and catch an unfortunate whiff of a swine, they’re actually introductions to the future. On Whidbey Island, you can get that for the old-time price of only $8. That’s a bargain.