Main Street: Downtown Oak Harbor needs variety to prosper

If it’s going to succeed, Oak Harbor’s historic downtown needs a better mix of services, restaurants and retailers, several business owners and realtors there said recently. It has too many tattoo parlors, churches, and hair or nail salons, they said, and too few coffee shops, bakeries, clothing stores, variety stores and specialty stores.

“Out of 87 businesses in our central business district, more than half of them are services,” said Margaret Livermore, president of Oak Harbor’s Main Street Association. That group, assisted by the state’s Dept. of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, provides tools and guidance to promote and preserve a city’s historic downtown core.

“We would prefer to see restaurants and retail on bottom floors, with apartments above them. We need stores that people now go off-island for. We want a mix that will bring people downtown.”

As of late July, historic downtown Oak Harbor had five churches: The Word of Everlasting Life and Faith Church, the City of Refuge Christian Church, Grace By the Sea Anglican Church, the Island Vineyard Community Church (still preparing to move in) and the Methodist Church. It had two tattoo parlors and at least eight hair or nail salons.

Only about a dozen apartments currently perch above Pioneer Way stores, estimated real estate broker Kathy Collantes of Go Realty.

“Some churches are a big part of the community, but we don’t see this with other churches,” Collantes added. Some reach out to the homeless and transients —- a worthy goal, she stressed, but one that may not be compatible with a successful shopping environment.

Churches are attracted to Pioneer Way’s low rents —- the lowest in Oak Harbor, she said. “As a landlord, you have to balance the value of having your building filled with what’s ideal for downtown,” she said. But the reality is that landlords may put getting the rent paid over what’s best for downtown as a whole.

Kristi Jensen, who owns four downtown properties, said she’s had expressions of interest from retailers lately, though she said providing any details would be premature. That level of interest contrasts with a notable absence of interest over the past few years, she said. At least five storefronts on Pioneer Way are empty.

“You need to treat your downtown like a mall, and malls only allow certain percentages of certain types of businesses,” she said. “People like to go in and out of little shops and buy things locally. You need a good blend to make it all work well.”

Ron Apgar, president of the Downtown Merchants’ Association, agreed. “We have to be careful not to get too many of any one thing downtown,” he said.