Tab nears $500,000 to placate Pioneer merchants

At the end of the day, Oak Harbor residents may end up footing a $486,000 tab to help downtown businesses cope with the effects of the SE Pioneer Way improvement project as well as recruit new businesses to the sparse commercial district.

That’s the number representatives from the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce and EnviroIssues, the Seattle-based consulting firm the city hired earlier this year, proposed to the city council at a Wednesday workshop. It includes both the work the firm has already completed and future mitigation efforts that they suggest should take place over the next year, until construction wraps up in October of 2011.

They also proposed the city spend another $151,000 over the next two years for a long-term marketing plan to recruit new businesses to the revitalized commercial district. But unlike the mitigation efforts, that number is not included in the project’s total $8.35 million price tag.

Although Mayor Jim Slowik told the chamber and EnviroIssues representatives to come to the workshop with a “Cadillac” plan, he said afterwards that he couldn’t help but feel a little sticker shock. He stipulated that the total could fluctuate by as much as $166,000 and is ultimately subject to the council’s approval.

However, he said he also promised downtown merchants before the project started that he would help them through the transition and he plans on delivering.

“That’s a lot of money no matter how you cut it, but we have a commitment to our merchants and we need to be able to live up to it,” Slowik said.

The plan laid out for the City Council Wednesday was for a multi-faceted effort that focuses on both outreach and mitigation efforts during construction, as well as a marketing plan aimed at keeping businesses healthy during and after the transition. Construction is expected to last from February to October of next year.

Speaking for EnviroIssues, Erin Taylor proposed a wide variety of ways to keep businesses informed with the latest information, from a website, online blog and e-mail alerts, to printed newsletters, flyers and a 24-hour telephone hotline.

Focusing on the initial marketing effort, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jill Johnson suggested the need for attraction-oriented and promotional activities, such as sidewalk and midnight sales to special events like cookie decorating contests during the holidays. She said the use of social and online media, such as Facebook, should also be utilized while getting store owners to agree to mutually beneficial programs, such as a discount card for valued customers that could be redeemed at multiple shops, will also be invaluable.

“The first phase is very focused on keeping existing customers and keeping the community engaged,” Johnson said.

She also emphasized the need for a long-term marketing strategy. If the city’s goal is to revitalize its commercial district, she urged that a recruitment effort to fill the many empty storefronts should begin now, before construction begins. That will give prospective merchants from other communities, or developers, time to begin making plans for a move.

While the numbers are all just estimated costs, Taylor and Johnson proposed a budget of $237,000 on construction outreach and $166,000 for economic development activities. Along with the $83,000 already spent on work performed by EnviroIssues, the total tab comes out to $486,000.

But while the sum has raised a few eyebrows, some downtown merchants are wondering whether it will be enough. Jill Schacht, owner of Casual House, said she isn’t complaining but that businesses will need all the help they can get if they are going to survive a nine-month construction project that is literally on their front doorstep.

“I think the number is minimal,” Schacht said. “It’s going to take a lot of money to revitalize downtown.”

Other shop owners are more critical of the city’s mitigation efforts and professed concern for businesses on Pioneer Way. Phil and Lydia Sikes, owners of Whidbey Wild Birds, said that except for a short visit by an EnviroIssues worker, they have yet to receive any communication from city staff about how the construction project will proceed.

When crews will be in front of her shop, the hours they will work and for how long is all vital information they need to begin planning their own preparations. What they have learned is that the city was planning to ban truck deliveries after 10 a.m. once construction begins. With 50 percent of their business tied up in bird seed sales, and deliveries nearly always taking place after 10 a.m., it’s a big concern.

Although city officials, including Slowik, said during Wednesday’s workshop that they are aware of the problem and working on a solution, the Sikes said the lack of communication over the past year has severely shaken their faith in City Hall.

“We’re pretty nervous,” Lydia Sikes said. “We’ll be very surprised if our business survives this.”

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