Oak Harbor merchants are exploring a new strategy to revitalize downtown.
Business owners are revisiting the idea of the national Main Street program designed to attract attention to a city’s historic downtown core.
The coordinator of the Washington State Main Street program, along with a Main Street representative from Ellensburg, made a presentation before City of Oak Harbor officials and members from Oak Harbor’s Downtown Merchants Association this past July.
The presentation was made at the request of Mayor Scott Dudley.
But no attempts to pursue the program were made.
That could change after a dialogue was resurrected recently between downtown merchants.
“We brought it up at the merchants’ meeting,” said Margaret Livermore, president of Garry Oak Gallery and former president of the city’s downtown merchants association.
“We want to start revisiting Main Street.”
Main Street is centered around promoting, preserving and embracing a city’s historic downtown.
It is designed to bring merchants together with the common goal of serving the greater business environment, and offers training, tax credit incentives and other benefits depending on a group’s degree of involvement.
Nearly 100 communities in Washington participate in the Main Street program at some level, including Coupeville and Langley.
“I try to tell people it’s a comprehensive economic development program that is rooted in historic preservation,” said Sarah Hansen, coordinator of the state Main Street program. “Really, what it’s meant to do is to help communities recognize and then maximize their assets.”
Main Street offers three tiers of involvement with most of its members participating at the affiliate level, giving them access to resources and networking opportunities and requiring minimal paperwork.
The other two tiers offer tax credit incentives and require setting up a nonprofit association dedicated solely to downtown revitalization.
Thirteen communities in Washington, including Port Townsend and Mount Vernon, participate in the top tier and are nationally certified programs.
Langley and Coupeville are classified as tier two.
Port Townsend is the state’s longest running Main Street program, Hansen said. Its success in being marketed as a destination attraction didn’t happen overnight.
“Main Street is a longterm investment,” Hansen said. “It’s a journey.”
Main Street provides a blueprint for communities to follow, Hansen said.
One design is to pool resources into a joint marketing effort.
An example might be raising the money to create signs that points visitors to historic downtown.
Tax credit incentives allow businesses to get back 75 percent of their investment into such donations into their Main Street program.
“I’m an unabashed supporter of the approach,” said Larry Cort, Oak Harbor’s city administrator who’s also held positions in Coupeville and Langley. “Cities can have success downtown without the Main Street program but if you have it, I think it tends to be more comprehensive in its success.”
“It really builds a strong sense of common purpose.
“If you look at the most successful downtowns in Washington state, it’s usually a Main Street community. I’m talking about Port Townsend, Ellensburg, Mount Vernon and Walla Walla.”
Cort said the Main Street organizational structure is one of its most outstanding features. It allows for the ability to assign a committee to tackle specific projects.
He also said that some cities have several Main Street associations, pointing to Boston having 17.
The Midway Boulevard business district in Oak Harbor, as an example, could set up its own Main Street community, he said.
Livermore said Oak Harbor needs to work together to become a destination point for visitors.
“We have a beautiful marina and wonderful parks,” Livermore said. “We have businesses downtown in a historic part of town. We have beautiful oak groves.
“We’re a pass-through town, not a stop town.
“They don’t think there’s anything to do here,” Livermore said. “We’re terrible at marketing that.”