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Pioneer Way road project hits major milestone

Decades of planning, discussion, and community input for a downtown revitalization project came to an end this week with the swish of a pen.

For sure, there is no going back now.

After receiving the green light from the Oak Harbor City Council, Mayor Jim Slowik signed preliminary documents Wednesday for a $3.86 million contract with Bellingham-based Strider Construction to complete the bulk of the work for the SE Pioneer Way improvement project.

Work on the one-way eastbound street conversion has been ongoing since the city council first approved the project in 2009, but a signed contract with a construction firm is being considered by many at City Hall as a major milestone.

Not only will it pave the way for an official groundbreaking, which has been set for March 1, but it closes a chapter in the city’s history that’s spanned decades.

“This has been in the planning stages for 35 years ... and in that 35 years we have either five or six iterations of a plan that have sat on a shelf waiting for something to happen,” said Slowik, during Tuesday’s city council meeting.

“I’m very, very proud to say that we’re going to award this bid and get this project started,” Slowik said. “Indeed, this is a historic event.”

Not everyone shares the mayor’s enthusiasm, however, and the project seems as controversial as ever.

“I think it’s the dumbest thing in the world,” said Les Bense, the owner of Oak Tree Antiques. “They are ruining downtown.”

Bense doesn’t see the contract as a historic event, rather what may mark the beginning of the end of his business. Past public works projects downtown have had severe impacts on his business. He’s so worried about the months of construction ahead that he is strongly considering a move.

If Bense does relocate, he wouldn’t be the first to pick up shop. Merchants have bewailed the plan, and the estimated eight months of construction needed for completion, ever since the city council agreed to move ahead.

But while the vast majority of shop-owners seem to be against the project, there are a few supporters.

“I can’t believe it’s finally happening,” said Kathy Collantes, of Angelo’s Caffe. “I’m so excited.”

A makeover of downtown is way overdue, she said, congratulating the city’s current administration for getting the project rolling after so many years of discussion. After seeing the effects of similar improvement projects in California, Collantes said she is thrilled that Oak Harbor values it merchants enough to make the same kind of investments.

“The city is doing a great thing for us,” she said.

An open house of the city’s downtown project headquarters has been scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 22, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The office is located at 720 SE Pioneer Way.

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