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Oak Harbor marketing plan under construction

Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik speaks to a tough crowd at Paint Your World downtown. Slowik and the City Council attended the Harborside Merchants Association meeting Tuesday to gather ideas about city-funded marketing during the construction phase of the SE Pioneer Way Improvement Project. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik speaks to a tough crowd at Paint Your World downtown. Slowik and the City Council attended the Harborside Merchants Association meeting Tuesday to gather ideas about city-funded marketing during the construction phase of the SE Pioneer Way Improvement Project.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Despite the demands of downtown merchants and the urging of Oak Harbor’s mayor, the City Council may be hard pressed to sign off on a plan to spend up to $170,000 on marketing for downtown businesses during the SE Pioneer Way Improvement Project.

Following a Harborside Merchants Association meeting attended by Mayor Jim Slowik and six of the seven City Council members Tuesday, Nov. 30, at least two said afterward that they would need additional convincing before approving the expenditure of public funds on private enterprise.

Referring to one of many suggestions voiced by merchants during the meeting, City Councilwoman Beth Munns said there is no chance that the city will directly support local businesses by helping to pay their rent during construction. In addition, any money spent on advertising for businesses will also have to promote the city in some way, she said.

“It has to be a combination of both,” Munns said.

Councilman Jim Campbell said he hadn’t made up his mind yet about whether to spend public funds on private business, although he is willing to approve another contract with EnviroIssues, a Seattle-based consulting firm, for professional administrative and coordination work during construction.

“The rest of it, that’s a different story,” Campbell said.

In October, the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce and EnviroIssues jointly proposed a plan to spend $403,000 on construction outreach, economic development activities and marketing. That would be on top of the $83,000 the council already spent on EnviroIssues for pre-construction work, which largely included the development of the above plan. The number has since been reduced to $394,500, with $170,000 of it going to marketing for downtown merchants.

Honoring a promise he made years ago to help merchants during the construction phase of the controversial road project, Slowik asked the council to attend the Harborside Merchants Association meeting so they could hear directly from merchants what kind of marketing assistance they need. It was also an attempt to bridge the gap between dissatisfied business owners and decision makers, he said.

“I’ve heard grumbling from the council that, ‘if (merchants) don’t want us, maybe we shouldn’t spend any money on marketing’ and I think that’s wrong,” Slowik said. “We made a commitment to market during construction and I want to follow through.”

But while Slowik tried to make it clear he was in their corner, he seemed to get more criticism than thanks. Animosity over the decision to turn the street into a one-way and the city’s alleged lack of communication regarding basic project details, such as road closure times, boiled over into expressions of doubt and more than a few harsh comments from the crowd.

Frank Scelzi, owner of Old Town Mall, said he wondered whether the mayor or City Council members would really listen to the suggestions of merchants, considering they voted for a one-way street when most shop owners downtown were adamantly against the proposal.

“When you’re listening to us tonight, please try to listen; look at the faces of these people,” Scelzi said. “There’s not a lot of them here because they don’t have the confidence in the city that you’re going to do what you say you will.”

Some of that frustration also turned on Jill Johnson, executive director for the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce. One person criticized elements of the chamber’s marketing plan, such as cookie decorating contests and sidewalk sales, while others expressed anger that they were not consulted to help develop the plan.

Johnson said she didn’t walk door-to-door consulting businesses because this was just a preliminary plan, one that she conducted for free at the request of the City Council, and was hesitant to make promises to merchants that she couldn’t keep.

“We don’t want promises, we want respect,” responded Phil Sikes, owner of Whidbey Wild Birds.

Not everyone was so critical, however. Jill Schacht, owner of Casual House, said Scelzi doesn’t speak for all shop owners. She also said the chamber’s marketing plan wasn’t so terrible and will carry downtown into the future. Similarly, former Pioneer Way merchant Coreen Lerch said she thought city officials were doing a good job and that those who are overly critical may be so close to the problem that their prospective may be a bit “fuzzy.”

Some specific marketing suggestions did come out of the meeting as well. Some merchants, such as My Father’s Home Community Thrift owner Tony Maggio, said the city should continue to build up existing events such as Race Week and the marathon to draw crowds, but most seemed to feel that more direct support was needed.

Scelzi requested that the city abandon plans to spend any more money with the chamber and EnviroIssues and instead give it to the Harborside Merchants Association or another specially created committee. A woman asked if they city would be willing to pay businesses’ rent during the toughest months.

Slowik told the crowd that while the city “can’t bring a wheelbarrow full of money and dump it on your doorstep,” he remains committed to working with downtown merchants and developing a marketing plan that will be adopted by the council.

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