Island County is situated in the Salish Sea in Northwest Washington. As its name suggests, it is made up of several islands. The two largest are Whidbey and Camano. Island County is the second-smallest county in Washington by landmass, just larger than neighboring San Juan County. Island County is bounded to the north by Deception Pass and by Puget Sound to the south. Skagit Bay and Saratoga Passage are located to the east and Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca are west of Island County. Skagit and Snohomish Counties lie to the east of Island County and the Olympic Peninsula lies across the water to the west.
Whidbey Island is divided economically into two different regions: the northern end of the island (encompassing Oak Harbor and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island), and the remainder of the island (encompassing Coupeville, Greenbank, Freeland, Langley, Clinton and smaller communities in between).
The economy of the northern end of Whidbey Island is strongly influenced by the presence of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (NASWI) near Oak Harbor. NASWI is Oak Harbor’s largest employer; thus, Oak Harbor has a predominantly service-based economy, and several national chain stores have been attracted to the Oak Harbor area.
The economy of Whidbey Island south of Oak Harbor relies heavily on tourism, small-scale agriculture and the arts.
For thousands of years, Island County was inhabited by several groups of Coast Salish Indians. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the population was decimated by disease transmitted through contact with European and American explorers.
Settlement by nonindigenous people began in the 1850s. Early industries included logging, fishing and farming, as well as some related manufacturing industries.
In 1941, the U.S. Navy started construction on NASWI, which transformed Oak Harbor into a booming community due to the creation of construction jobs and influx of Navy personnel. NASWI remains a strong economic stabilizing force in Whidbey Island. NASWI has also brought many highly skilled workers to Whidbey Island. There is not a strong economic base to provide sufficient employment for the spouses and dependents of those workers; consequently, commuting to nearby counties provides a relief valve for residents seeking jobs.
The median age in Island County is about 43 years old, meaning the workforce skews older. Median household income in Island County is $59,107, slightly higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Island County is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the state of Washington. The only bridge that reaches Whidbey Island is the Deception Pass Bridge, State Route 20, which connects the north end of Whidbey to the mainland via Fidalgo Island. Prior to the completion of the bridge in 1935, Whidbey Island was linked to Fidalgo Island by the Deception Pass ferry, which ran from 1924 to 1935. Modern ferry service is available via state Route 20 on the Coupeville to Port Townsend ferry, and via state Route 525 on the Clinton to Mukilteo ferry service on the southeast coast.
Travel on the island involves use of an extensive county road system, or city infrastructure depending on location, all of which act as feeders to the two state highways state Route 525 and state Route 20.
Whidbey Island’s state routes 525 and 20 are the only nationally designated scenic byway on an island. It is appropriately named the “Whidbey Island Scenic Isle Way.”
Whidbey Island was named for Joseph Whidbey, the first colonist to lay claim to it. The township enjoyed both a financial and population boom in the 1890s when Dutch settlers coming from the Midwest and Canada colonized the area and used its rich resources to establish fertile farms. Today, windmills and Dutch construction bear witness to that history. Many of the town’s oldest structures were built near the harbor, since the water trade was the main initial source of income.
Today, tourism is especially important for both Whidbey and Camano islands. On Whidbey, tourists find a wide range of amenities in the towns of Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Freeland and Langley. Coupeville’s Penn Cove Mussel Farm exports large quantities of its highly renowned Penn Cove Mussels. This aquaculture facility, along with a number of small farms, reflects the rural agricultural nature of most of central Whidbey Island. Many of these small farms host farm stands onsite, where customers may buy produce, flowers, meat, eggs and other locally raised products directly from the farmers.
Naval Air Station Whidbey Island
Naval Air Station Whidbey Island contributes significantly to Island County’s economy and to a lesser degree Skagit County’s. At approximately 10,000 employees, the base is four times the size of the next nearest employer in Island, San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties, according to 2013 reports. In military payroll alone, the base contributed $726 million dollars into Island County’s economy in 2011 and $15 million into Skagit County’s. The number of veterans living near the base is three times higher than the national average.