Like many small rural towns across America, Stanwood has found itself at a crossroads in its history and future development. For years its remote location and size helped preserve and guarantee Stanwood’s sleepy hamlet charm and character. With time and the population expansion here in Western Washington, the path of suburban growth and change is now knocking at Stanwood’s door. Because of the town’s scale and lack of appropriate infrastructure, this community finds itself ill equipped to adequately address the changes growth will bring. It is not a new phenomenon for small rural towns to lose their character and charm to rapidly sprawling shopping centers and housing developments.
Stanwood was first settled in the late 1800s and grew as a result of its proximity to the many natural resources of the area and the rich farmlands of the Skagit and Stilliguamish Valleys. Like much of Puget Sound, many of the first settlers were of Scandinavian descent. They came here to farm the valleys and log the forests. For most of Stanwood’s first hundred years, the populations of the town grew very gradually. Stanwood’s “Twin City” title originated in the fact that the present day city began as two distinct settlements around the turn of the last century. West Stanwood, which was originally known as Centerville, developed first. It grew adjacent to the waterfront and lumber mills. Since goods were moved by ship, many of these mills and a food processing plant were built along the river. In 1891 the railroad came through to the east, and the settlement that grew up around it was later incorporated as East Stanwood. The two towns existed independently from each other and were actually connected by a small gauge railroad known as the “Dinghy” from 1904 to 1932.
By the 1960s pressures from growth and the need for more sophisticated and organized infrastructure meant the two towns needed to come together. During this period, struggling economic times and changes in the economic base stalled growth. Around 1960 Hamilton Lumber’s last mill burned, signaling the end of an era of lumber production and river usage. The area continued as a strong base for agricultural production and Stanwood’s natural surroundings made it a popular recreational center. By the late 1960s, pressures from growth in other larger Puget Sound urban centers to the south and Stanwood’s proximity to the I-5 freeway began to encourage more and more people to seek the peaceful rural character of Stanwood.
With increased growth, changes were made in planning and building that stipulated any new development must meet more stringent flood and zoning requirements. Because downtown Stanwood was in a flood plain, these new policies made it difficult to build there. By the 1990s annexations brought greater residential and commercial growth in areas above the flood plain, east of the original town. While these areas were developing, conditions were beginning to deteriorate in the older downtown neighborhoods. As Stanwood exists today, it is a compilation of a variety of building types, intermixing commercial and residential. Highway SR 532, the main road from the freeway to Camano Island, is lined with businesses and has severed downtown from direct access to the river that runs adjacent to it.
Although Stanwood’s population is only about 5,000, it currently services over 40,000 people from the surrounding area. The school district alone supports approximately 5,500 students and leads the area as the number one employer. Stanwood’s job base also includes a food processing plant, nursing homes, three grocery stores, 12 banks, restaurants, medical services and light industry. The newer developments in the uphill regions seem necessary to accommodate the higher volume and variety of services needed in the area. However, citizens have expressed their concern that development in the newer neighborhoods must not refocus attention away from the original core of downtown Stanwood.