Entrpreneurs are a top concern for new EDC director

When Sharon Hart was still in the retail business 15 years ago in Cowlitz County, she learned that customer service was the key to keeping small-town businesses alive in the face of competition from malls and big-box retailers like Wal-Mart.

Due to start work as the Island District Economic Development Council's (EDC) director in November, Hart said she is ready to step into Whidbey Island's business arena, where national chain stores and mom-and-pop establishments compete for consumers with the formula of customer service versus price.

She will need to adjust after working the past 12 years as the director of the Lower Columbia EDC in rural Wahkiakum County. Though Island County, like Wahkiakum, is considered a rural area, its population is 10 times larger than its southern neighbor, and its business community is more varied.

Hart acknowledges that what Oak Harbor shoppers may want in their city will almost certainly be different than what South Whidbey residents need in their business districts.

“The consumer needs to look and say, ‘What's important here’?” she said.

As she worked the EDC's booth at Saturday's Uniquely Whidbey Trade Fair & Home Show, that variation already had her thinking about how the EDC can help keep shoppers’ dollars on the islands. Encouraging entrepreneurs to open businesses that fill consumer needs is one way to do that. Convincing consumers to shop locally is another.

“The existing businesses that are here need to be strengthened and supported,” she said, emphasizing her interest in business retention.

At the same time, Hart said, there will be business turnover in Island County. In her new job, she will encourage new businesses to come to the area, whether they are part of a nationwide retail outfit or a one-owner shop.

“We have to look fairly at that,” she said.

Hart is not shy in pointing out that she is ready to put her life's work into building the county's economy. She is one of the three most senior EDC officials in the state and is leaving her home of 25 years to take her new position.

She and her husband sold a family-owned car radiator shop recently and will move to Whidbey Island by the time she officially starts work in early November.

Tools at her disposal will include connections to business loan institutions, access to business startup grants, and in-house permit assistance. Hart noted she will be able to give more more specific, business building assistance to islanders than she could in Wahkiakum County. While there, she also had to promote tourism, something Island County's chambers of commerce already do.

Hart will receive a salary of $50,000 a year from the EDC. Island County provides $32,000 percent of the agency's $187,000 budget. Other agency funding comes from San Juan County and from individual business membership dues.

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