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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Transformation comes with a price

Lewes, Delaware, by all accounts, was a strategic fishing port from its early days three hundred years ago  and reached its heyday in the 1950's through the early 1960's.  In 1964, the menhaden catch was bountiful.  In 1965, Otis Smith decided not to open the Sea Coast Productions fish plant.  Smith reopened the plant briefly in 1966, but closed it before the season was over due to lack of fish.  The menhaden industry had suddenly collapsed all up and down the east coast.  From his plant in Beaufort, NC, Smith vowed to reopen the Lewes plant, but the plant never did reopen.  The fishing industry in Lewes had died.

With the collapse of the menhaden fishing industry, Lewes had to reinvent itself.  Political, business, and community leaders looked to their neighbors to the south for ideas.  They opted for the route of building a tourist industry. 

While Lewes was founded as a fishing community, its neighbors to the south were founded as resorts.  Both Bethany and Rehoboth were religious retreats.  In between lay Dewey Beach.  Legend claims a business man in Dewey was known to give shots of whiskey to visitors from the Rehoboth religious retreat during Prohibition.  Further south lay Ocean City, MD.  In 1869, the first wooden cottage opened for paying customers.  Soon after, several more cottages were built.  By 1875, the first hotel opened for business.

Today, all these communities, except Lewes, retain the identities they were founded on a hundred and fifty years ago.  Bethany and Rehoboth are family orientated beaches with a strong religious influence.  Ocean City is a mecca for large hotels, a bustling boardwalk, and a carnival atmosphere.  Dewey is still the wild party beach.  Lewes, however, has retained little, if any, of its culture and heritage to the water. 

River pilots steered ships from Lewes through the hazardous waterways of the Delaware Bay and Delaware River since colonial times.  Today, the 118-year old Delaware Bay and River Pilots Association, with 88 members, still sail foreign and non-Coast Guard certified American crews to the ports of Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Trenton.  With the closing of the menhaden processing plant in 1966 followed by the closing of the Doxee Clam Processing Plant in 1986, infrastructure to support commercial fishing became nonexistent and only nine fishermen claim Lewes as a home port today.  While the river pilots' future on the water appears secure at least for the near future, these last nine fishermen will soon disappear.  Sport fishing has enjoyed a long history in Lewes, but it, too, is declining.  In the 1930's there were over two hundred charter and party boats.  Today, by best count, there are fifty-four. 

Not pictured: fake watermen
In its zeal to embrace tourism, Lewes has turned its back on the water it was founded on, the water that defined it's culture and heritage for over three hundred years.  Sure, there are festivals celebrating Lewes' water heritage, but the festivals are for the tourists.  Only a little more than a third of the population of Lewes is native Delawareans.  Over the decades since the collapse of the menhaden industry forty-eight years ago, the tight-knit waterman's community drifted apart in search of better fishing grounds.  Residents who supported the fishing industry by working in the boatyards and processing plants left in search of better jobs as Lewes struggled to redefine itself.  The festivals are nostalgic reminders of what once was, but few residents have a genuine connection with.  Lewes being a waterman's community is about as real as the illusion that palm trees grow on Delaware beaches. 

While many of today's business and political leaders may boast of Lewes' economic success, almost two-thirds of Lewes' residents have already expressed their opinions.  They moved. 

There are many lessons to be learned from Lewes, its transition to a tourist-based economy, and the price local residents paid for the transition.  Grab a beer and let's explore them.

The first, and most obvious, lesson to be learned from Lewes' past is any economic endeavor should be sustainable.  It's hard to comprehend that fifty years ago, people believed there would always be land to till, game to hunt, and fish to catch.  Sure, there were voices warning of an impending collapse, but the warnings went mostly unheeded. 

The oily fish smell lingering over Lewes was the smell of money (as the watermen back then would say) and not an unpleasant stench non-watermen associate with fish smells.  Every season the menhaden swarmed the Delaware and watermen caught as many as they could before the fish moved on.  No one had any reason to believe the fish wouldn't be back the following year.  The smell of money would linger in Lewes for generations to come.

Over-fishing combined with DDT contaminants being pumped into the river by the chemical companies in northern Delaware led to the collapse of the menhaden industry.  Yes, industry and political leaders never stopped to think that not only could unregulated fishing, but also unregulated dumping in the waterways, would lead to the collapse of an entire industry.

The concept of sustainability includes more than the obvious conservation of resources and maintaining a renewable resource or product.  All of Lewes' economic eggs were placed in one basket - the fishing industry.  When that basket collapsed, the eggs broke because there were no other baskets to catch the falling eggs.

Ok, you know when one starts reciting a modern version of Humpty Dumpty, it's time for another beer.  This time, you may want to grab an amber lager instead of a pale ale.  I know I need one.

Lewes centered their whole economy around the menhaden and clamming industry.  As long as the waters produced the fish and clams, the economy prospered.  The Lewes economy also relied on one seafood processing house, a national company owned by brothers who had no vested interest in the success or failure of Lewes' economy.  When the menhaden industry collapsed all up and down the East Coast, the owners of Sea Coast Productions simply moved their processing houses to the Gulf and down to South America where the fish were still plentiful.

Lewes struggled, economically, for the next couple of decades.  The fishermen, who were now out of work, could've found work a short drive south to the tourist communities, but the pay was no where near what they could make as fishermen.  Many followed the fish down to the Gulf and, particularly, Louisiana.  Even to this day, many Maryland watermen, also a disappearing breed, are finally packing up and heading to Louisiana - and even North Carolina, home of the original Sea Coast Productions in Lewes - for better fishing grounds like Delaware fishermen did almost fifty years ago .

Lewes, DE in its fishing heyday.  Cape
Henlopen is visible at the top of photo.
As early as 1979, the federal government, through their Coastal Fisheries Assistance program, detailed ways Lewes could rebuild their fishing industry.  Community, business, and political leaders of the time chose a different route, the route of developing tourism, instead of choosing to revitalize the fishing industry.  Seven years later, the Doxee Clam Processing plant closed.  More watermen left the community.

What is interesting to note at this point is not that the fishing industry died, but the political leaders of the day, both on the local and state level, had ample opportunity to figure out why the fishing industry collapsed and what they needed to do to rebuild the industry.  Instead, they chose to redefine the entire identity of Lewes at the expense of the watermen who had built the town over several generations.

Now keep in mind the transition of Lewes from a fishing town to a tourist town didn't happen overnight.  The menhaden collapse in 1966 signaled the first warning signs of economic troubles caused by troubles in the Delaware Bay.  Instead of addressing those problems community, business, and local politicians abandoned the water and sought to build a new identity for the town.  Without any support from local or state officials, twenty years later, the clamming industry collapsed.  All the while, in the background, the sport fishing industry dwindled, and could foreseeably collapse.  The disconnect of Lewes to its fishing past will be complete.

The parallels of what happened fifty years ago and what is happening today are undeniable.  The local community, business, and political leaders don't pay attention to the past nor the future.  They all worry about what is happening now and they leave it to future leaders to worry about what will happen fifty years from now.

Ok, we're really building in amplitude now, so you might want to grab yourself one of those strong import beers.  All the leaders of the past are either dead or in nursing homes.  They made their mistakes and we should let them rest in peace.  But let's dig in to the current leaders.

Most likely, there will never be a viable waterman community in Lewes again.  Lewes is now, and will be, nothing more than a tourist town.  It's not that tourism is a bad thing.  Tourism, when integrated into a community as a secondary economic endeavor, is a good thing.  Tourism helps preserve cultural heritage, but often ends up destroying it when a community comes to rely on it.

So where is the future of Delaware's coastal towns and all of Sussex county?

Let's fast forward fifty years from now.  It is 2064.  We'll assume the vision of 2064, Sussex County, is based on the historical trends of policy and development that has existed for the last fifty years will continue for the next fifty years.

The tourism industry collapsed.  There were many factors in its collapse, the biggest being rising sea levels.  Too many buildings on an unstable sandbar is also part of the problem.  The "spit of sand", as the original owners called it almost 200 years ago, is constantly changing.   While the attitude of 2014 was everything from Lewes to Ocean City will always be there, 2064 sees the coastal towns at the water's edge, if not submerged.  Beach replenishment will be an annual, expensive, and futile effort as sea levels continue to rise.  Our government decides not to fund any further beach replenishment efforts ensuring the fate of the last communities facing inundation.

Eight feet of beach at low tide and surf fishing from the boardwalk at high tide may appeal to a small group of tourists, but our government's failure, and the failure of the international community, to regulate fishing to preserve the ocean's resources collapses whatever remains of the sport fishing industry.  Since 2014, the concept of sustainability was understood by all, lauded by many, practiced by no one.

In 2014, no one planned for the possible effects of changing consumer demands, evolving technology, and a changing workforce would have on Delaware and Maryland's coastal communities and its tourism industry.  Let's take a quick look at each one of these factors.
  • Consumer demands:  More and more people will rely on virtual shopping instead of fighting the crowds at a physical store.  Virtual reality vacations will replace many of the real world vacations.  Colleges and eventually public schools will be replaced with online classes.  More and more, the average consumer will be shopping, playing, and working in a virtual world he created. 
  • Evolving technology:  Huge advances in the world of virtual reality will replace the mundane social networks of 2014.  No more posting pics and quick quips.  No more checking in to let your friends know where you are.  Your personal space will literally be the alternate dimension in which you live and interact, in real time, with others.  Your ability to live in the physical world and the virtual world at the same time will be facilitated by an implanted chip in your brain (yeah, no Google glasses) that will have you connected to the Internet (which will have changed its name to "Interworld") 24 hours a day.  Immunizations shots will consist of nanobots (microscopic robots) that will course through your veins acting as white blood cells, only the nanobots will be more efficient.  As new diseases develop, a simple trip to the doctor for an MRI-like procedure will reprogram the nanobots to recognize the new diseases.  Life expectancy will increase by about twenty years.  The nanobots will even monitor your health and will disconnect you from the virtual world when they detect a need to eat, exercise, use the bathroom, or sleep.  On the horizon are the next generation of chips that would be implanted in newborns and would learn and grow as the child learns and grow.  The chip, in effect, will be the person the child grows up to be.  When the body wears out by natural biological laws, the chip will be implanted in a robot and the robot will become the person the chip was recovered from.  In effect, man will have achieved immortality as long as that chip can be connected to an energy source.
  • Changing workforce:  The biggest change will be there are no more employees.  Yup, the word, employee, will become an archaic term.  As companies adjust to the needs of the virtual consumer, the need for virtual employees rises.  What we call independent contractors or 1099 employees today will become the virtual employee of tomorrow and they will comprise the majority of the workforce.  The virtual sales clerk at Lowes, who helped you select the tools and materials you will need for a DIY home project, may be be the licensed online plumber you turn to for consultation when your project hits a snag.  He/she may also be the sales clerk at your local hardware store when you realize you need something to finish the project today and don't have time to wait for it to be shipped.  What you needed will be bagged and ready for pick up at the local store before you even get in your car to go pick up what you just ordered.  And when you end up flooding your house despite all of the help the licensed plumber gave you in your virtual world, he/she may very well be the plumber who comes to your house and gets the job done correctly.  And don't think he/she only works for companies selling plumbing supplies or works only in the plumbing field.  The employee of 2064 will be a multi-tasking professional, whose online portfolio will tell you how good of an employee he/she is in many different fields and areas of expertise. 
If you think these predictions are "out there"
check out Metro 2064, a newspaper from 2064
Oh, if you're wondering what happened to the real world Lowes and other stores, don't worry, they are still around.  Most of them have become distribution center hubs, only there will be a lot less of them around.  Your online orders will be shipped to the hubs, which, in turn, will ship your order to your home.  The hubs will carry the basics and most popular items for the consumer who still likes to shop the old fashioned way.  The hubs will employ those who haven't been able to build a successful virtual career or are in the process of developing their online portfolio as they develop their virtual career. 

If you have followed this far, you're probably wondering what the heck an article on the collapse of the fishing industry in Lewes fifty years ago has to do with Lewes in 2064.  Let's see.  We ended our last round with a strong import beer.  Let's start the finale with a locally brewed beer of your choice and I'll tie the story all together.

Just as fifty years ago when Lewes relied on one main economic industry supported by one nationally owned company, Lewes, today, relies on one main economic industry, tourism.   The difference today is the tourism industry is supported by more than one nationally owned company.  However, if the industry were to collapse, Lewes will once again struggle for a decade or two as it tries to redefine itself, much as it had to do fifty years ago.  Nationally owned companies have no real stake in the health of the local economy where they are located.  They simply move until the community has rebuilt itself.

Today, community, business, and political leaders aren't looking at the possibility of a collapsed tourism industry.  What they are looking at is how to further develop the tourism industry.  That is why we have Senator Carper celebrating the opening of a new hotel or local businessman Alex Pires pushing for developing farmland as a country music festival venue.  No one is looking at what may happen fifty years from now.  They only care about what is happening now and how they can capitalize on the present trends to promote their career aspirations or grow their personal bank accounts.

Fifty years from now, when rising sea levels have claimed the life of the hotel celebrated today or the country music festival platform lay in weed-covered ruin because virtual concerts are all the rage, will there be any industry in place to carry on the economic success of Lewes and the surrounding area?  Or will we see a repeat of fifty years ago where residents slowly leave the area as business, community, and political leaders try once again to rebuild the community from scratch?

Lewes, Sussex County, and all of Delmarva has the opportunity to grow in leaps and bounds within the next fifty years and beyond.  It is real easy to look towards our political leaders and demand they look to the future and create an economic environment, today, that is friendly towards future development. 

Sadly, the political landscape lacks true visionaries who are willing to build their platform based on what they believe will benefit the community fifty years from now as opposed to a platform that will satisfy immediate needs.

Business leaders don't determine nor shape the future.  They capitalize on what is now and will deal with the future when it comes.  That is why hotels are being built and concert venues are being considered.  Once the land is developed, a natural resource will be gone forever.  Fifty years from now, when the area wants to develop virtual tourism, just how many tourists will want to visit a washed out hotel on a submerged sandbar or visit an abandoned stage in an abandoned farm field that hasn't had the chance to heal itself into a natural, mature forest worthy of bird watchers and hikers to explore?

As you finish the last of your beer, let's go back to the title of this article, Transformation comes with a price.  Exactly what price is being alluded to?

Fifty years ago, a tight knit waterman's community thrived in Lewes.  When the industry collapsed, two-thirds of the population had to move to find work.  The move didn't take place overnight.  It took place over a couple of decades.  As Lewes moved towards a tourist based economy, residents lost the community connection as more and more strangers moved in to town and more locals moved out in search of better paying jobs.  The sentiments of long-time residents can be heard on the local talk radio, WXDE 105.9, particularly on the Susan Monday Show (10 am until noon and resuming 1:00 pm until 3:00 pm) and the Jared Morris Show (immediately following Susan Monday at 3:00 pm and ending at 7:00 pm).  "The world is a more dangerous place today because no one even knows who their neighbors are anymore" is the constant refrain from the born and raised residents of Lewes.

Ironically, the very technology one would think would isolate us more from each other in the real world is the same technology that could unite us as a tight knit community we so admire from yesteryear.  No longer will "workers" need to pull up roots and move to where the jobs are.  Jobs are wherever one is because the virtual world knows no boundaries.  Most workers will be virtual employees living in their virtual world, but the nanobots will ensure we shut down and interact in the real world for health reasons.  Our real world community, even incorporated into our virtual world,  will once again make our communities strong and tight knit. 

Building the tourism industry for Lewes and all of Sussex County is great for bringing in plenty of at or near minimum wage jobs, but it's time for local and state leaders to look past today and build for the communities that will be fifty years from now.  The next time local leaders try to bring in yet another hotel, ask them where are the technology industries that could provide more meaningful employment than a hotel can.  The next time local leaders try to bring in yet another tourism based industry, such as a concert venue, ask them where are the environmental industries that could provide more meaningful employment than a concert stage can.  The next time local leaders try to bring in yet another national chain restaurant, ask them where is the support for the Mom & Pop stores and local entrepreneurs, the true backbone of any stable local economy.

Radical changes in how we all work and play are coming.  We need to start looking for radically different leaders who have a vision to prepare for the changes and make Lewes, Sussex County, and all of Delmarva a leader in the new economy.


Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks

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