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$80,000 for art downtown pondered
To enhance downtown and qualify for perks that come with a University of Washington sustainability research project, Oak Harbor may spend up to $80,000 on public art for the SE Pioneer Way improvement project.
In November, the City Council hesitantly agreed to seek proposals for works of art at four locations along SE Pioneer: on the corners of Midway Boulevard, City Beach, SE Dock, and SE Ireland streets. The ultimate fate of the project, however, remains uncertain.
While willing to see what kinds of ideas may come back from artists, several council members expressed their reluctance to spend so much money on something as subjective as art, especially at a time when the city is struggling in the grip of a recession.
“I have nothing against good art as long as I’m not the one who has to pick it out,” said Councilman Bob Severns, which earned a few chuckles from the crowd. “I certainly see a benefit but I want to be careful at this stage about how we spend our money.”
Downtown merchants, who will be most affected by the success or failure of the $8.35 million improvement project, appear to have varying opinions on the topic. Jim Ducken, owner of Mr. Music, said he tends to be more conservative when it comes to money and spending $80,000 on art would not be his first choice.
Constructing a parking garage would far more useful, he said. City officials argue that the one-way road project will improve parking problems downtown, but Ducken said he’d much rather see money spent addressing that issue than art.
“It’s not something I would spend money on,” Ducken said.
Other downtown merchants, however, say it may not be too bad an idea. Kristi Jensen, owner of Harborside Village and one of the biggest critics of the one-way project, said art could be worth the expense if it were done tastefully and fit in with the waterfront’s historic character.
“If it was a good project, I think it would be supported,” Jensen said.
Good public art, such as Clinton artist Georgia Gerber’s bronze sculpture of a boy and dog overlooking Saratoga Passage in Langley, can enhance an entire area and be a huge draw, she said.
Jensen said it would have been nice if the city had solicited ideas from the public before seeking submissions from artists. It would be a shame if the projects that came back were for abstract works that would detract from the taste and charm of a waterfront shopping district, she said.
“If it’s going to be an eyesore, it’s not worth it,” Jensen said.
According to Oak Harbor Arts Commission Chairman Rick Lawler, the public did have several opportunities to weigh in on the project before it went before the City Council. However, he said everyone is keeping an open mind and whatever comes back from artists will be carefully considered before being approved.
He also said that the whole purpose behind the project is to enhance the road project and provide the waterfront with what he said was a sorely needed draw. As a volunteer at the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce’s Visitor Information Center, he regularly hears from tourists who say they don’t even bother visiting Oak Harbor because there is nothing to see.
“It doesn’t have a lighthouse or bridge like Coupeville or North Whidbey,” Lawler said.
But the project is also being proposed so the city can qualify for the University of Washington’s Green Roads Pilot Project, a performance metric meant to evaluate roadways designed and constructed to a level of sustainability substantially higher than the norm.
As one of only two cities in the state participating in the pilot project, the city is eligible for several perks, from free design review and consultation to being allowed to advertise the controversial one-way street conversion as a “Greenroads” project.
According to City Administrator Paul Schmidt, one of the qualifiers is that the city spend either $200,000 or 1 percent of the total project cost on public art. The 1 percent works out to $80,000. Some council members said the benefits seemed worth the price tag.
“Being one of the only two cities in Washington has got to be worth something,” City Councilman Jim Campbell said. “However, I personally don’t want to see cubist, I don’t want to see Andy Warhol; let’s make it something the average guy walking down the street can understand.”
Schmidt said artist submissions would go back to the arts commission to be evaluated. The body will narrow down some choices and will present their recommendations to the council at its Feb. 15 meeting.