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Council balks at sharing more tourism money

A proposal to increase Oak Harbor’s annual contribution to a Whidbey Island tourism promotional group was shot down this week with a resounding “no.”

Members of the city council made it clear Tuesday that while the Island County Joint Tourism Board has undergone marked improvement since the city decided to cut back its funding one and a half years ago, the biggest changes have only come in the past six months.

And that’s just not enough time to justify upping the city’s contribution just yet.

“For many years, I think we were paying a lot more and keeping them afloat,” Oak Harbor City Councilwoman Beth Munns said.

“It’s only been six months since their radical changes,” she said. “I’m not opposed, I just want to see a little more proof.”

While other city council members expressed similar reservations, most said they would need to see additional information before approving an increase.

The tourism board was established in 2000 to oversee a 2 percent tax collected from lodging industry businesses in Island County. The 18-member group, made up of representatives from Whidbey and Camano Islands, decides where and how to reinvest the money into general tourism promotion.

In recent years, however, city officials grew disgruntled over Oak Harbor’s annual contribution, which far outweighed those of Coupeville and Langley. Coupled with gripes that the money was being spent on advertising campaigns that seemed to focus on the smaller communities, the city council decided to reduce the annual payment to 1 percent.

In 2009, it was suggested that the money may be better spent on city functions and the city council agreed to reduce its contribution further to just $20,000 a year.

The two percent lodging tax in Oak Harbor garnered $93,690 in 2010. By comparison, $122,256 was collected in rural Island County, $23,030 in Coupeville and $45,299 in Langley.

Tourism board chairman Chet Ross, who is also president of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce, disputes any implications that Oak Harbor has ever been treated unequally. In the past, city officials “felt they were the elephant in the room and that they should get the lion’s share” of promotion, but the fact is the organization was formed to serve everyone, not just the biggest contributors, he said.

“We can’t always concentrate on just one area — it’s Island County,” Ross said.

The city has had specific businesses, such as Frasers Gourmet Hideaway, featured by travel writers, and has been pushed as a “family friendly destination,” Ross said.

The tourism board has made some changes, however. This past June it hired a new director, Sherrye Wyatt, and her work has installed new confidence in the organization. City Councilman Jim Campbell, the city’s current representative on the tourism board, is counted among its new supporters.

Campbell was the one who asked that the issue be revisited. Shortly before Wyatt gave a presentation highlighting both the tourism board’s function and its recent activities at Tuesday’s meeting, Campbell told his colleagues they may be impressed.

“You’re going to see where it’s performing and that Oak Harbor is not being left out,” Campbell said.

Wyatt’s presentation included information ranging from the effect tourism has on the national and state economy to where and how the tourism board spends its money. She also reported the impact in the county. Between 2002 and 2009, taxable lodging sales rose from $3.02 million a year to $4.27 million.

According to Ross, the public probably doesn’t realize just how important tourism is. In 2009, he said it contributed $134 million to Island County’s economy, supporting about 2,430 jobs.

“We’re a major force economically,” Ross said.

But no one is debating the value of tourism and its promotion, according Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce director Jill Johnson, who was present at Tuesday’s city council meeting. It’s about how and where the money is spent.

“This program hasn’t worked for a while,” Johnson said.

However, that doesn’t mean it should be abandoned forever. If things continue to improve, she suggested Oak Harbor should take another look at its annual contribution.

While unwilling to increase the amount right away, several city council members expressed a willingness to explore the issue further and asked that additional information be compiled. The matter is expected to go back before the city council sometime in March.

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