Oak Harbor Pioneer Way project begins after 35 years of talking

Chad Neil, Oak Harbor Chamber Director Jill Johnson, Oak Harbor City Councilman Jim Palmer and other dignitaries break ground on the SE Pioneer Way improvement project Tuesday. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Chad Neil, Oak Harbor Chamber Director Jill Johnson, Oak Harbor City Councilman Jim Palmer and other dignitaries break ground on the SE Pioneer Way improvement project Tuesday.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Construction on Oak Harbor’s SE Pioneer Way improvement project kicked off this week with a groundbreaking ceremony attended by a surprise guest -— a bald eagle.

Armed with gold-painted shovels, Oak Harbor dignitaries and members of the public launched the historic downtown restoration project March 1 by digging into a flower garden near the intersection of SE Dock Street and Pioneer Way.

The ceremony began with remarks from Mayor Jim Slowik. In his opening comments, he addressed the project’s bumpy path over the past 35 years, from planning to groundbreaking.

“For such a straight street, it’s been a long and winding road,” he said, earning more than a few chuckles from the crowd.

The project has been controversial from the start. Several plans have been discussed over the decades but only in the past few years did the project gather real steam. In 2009, the city council approved a plan to redesign the street into an eastbound one-way.

Since then, the issue has a been a constant source of debate and unrest. Many business owners worry that a one-way configuration will do more harm than good and have gone to great lengths to stop the project, from arguing sidewalk rights in superior court and grant funding before the county commissioners to bringing financial issues before the state auditor.

And while there were rumors that picketers would attend the groundbreaking ceremony, no one in the crowd was waving signs of protest. Most seemed to be fans of the project, demonstrating their support with cheers and smiles.

The project did get one uninvited, albeit welcome, guest. Shortly after the mayor began his statement,  a bald eagle stole the show when it flew slowly, and very low, over the crowd. Those in attendance responded with “ooos” and “ahhs.”

“There’s our flyover,” Slowik said.

Oak Harbor resident and businessman Chad Neil was at the ceremony. While he said he wasn’t prepared to say the eagle was prophetic, it certainly wasn’t a bad sign. Overall, he believes the improvement project will be good for the downtown area.

“I think it will be a positive thing for Oak Harbor, or at least I’m hoping it will,” he said.

He praised the mayor and city council for having the courage and stamina to see the controversial project through. Elected officials have been hashing out various plans for years, and finally something is getting done.

Beth Kuchynka, owner of Bayleaf on Pioneer Way, said she also sees the project as a positive and long overdue step. Although she considers herself a newcomer, as her business has only been downtown for about four years, she’s optimistic about the future.

“Change is always hard, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing,” Kuchynka said.

As for the eagle, she said she didn’t know if it was prophetic either but that she far preferred it to the rumors she’d heard of protestors who were planning to show up and throw eggs.

“That was a much better sign,” she said.



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