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Oak Harbor's art funding source lost, turmoil results

A miniature model of a stacked glass art piece sits on display at one of the many public meetings the Arts Commission held in recent months in order to pick four pieces for Pioneer Way.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
A miniature model of a stacked glass art piece sits on display at one of the many public meetings the Arts Commission held in recent months in order to pick four pieces for Pioneer Way.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

After a volunteer board spent six months researching artwork for downtown Oak Harbor, city leaders suddenly realized the preferred funding mechanism was illegal.

As a result, the Oak Harbor Arts Commission may end up covering the bulk of the tab for public art on Pioneer Way.

Early last week, city officials learned that their plan to use Real Estate Excise Tax money, commonly referred to as REET funds, was not a legal option and would likely raise red flags with state regulators.

The unexpected news resulted in a last-minute decision to pull the arts commission’s recommendations from the council’s May 17 meeting agenda. It also left city officials scratching their heads about how to pay for the art.

Nothing is certain yet, but Mayor Jim Slowik said one plan being floated is to pay for most of the $80,000 project using funds from the arts commission’s budget, which has a balance of about $57,000. The rest, about $23,000, would come from one or several undetermined sources, he said.

But even that plan is uncertain. The Pioneer Way Improvement Project was initiated during the worst economic downturn in 20 years, Slowik said. Money is in short supply and the city council is watching every penny with conservative eyes.

“This isn’t a slam-dunk,” Slowik said.

Although he said the arts commission has worked hard and deserves credit, even with a strong proposal the city council may elect to spend less than the planned $80,000. It’s a decision that is entirely up to them, he said.

Late last year, the city council gave the OK to seek bids from artists interested in creating public art at four key locations along Pioneer Way. The arts commission has spent the past six months wading through the more than 40 pieces submitted.

While the seven-member advisory group was able to come up with finalists, it’s suffered several setbacks. Replacements for two of the finalists had to be found after one doubled his price and another withdrew.

The arts commission has also weathered a healthy share of criticism, both from the public and decision-makers. Most of it has been in reference to the budget. The group’s most recent recommendations included five pieces, rather than the planned four, totaling $125,500.

That’s $45,500 over the $80,000-project cap, which was set at approximately 1 percent of the estimated cost of the $8.35 million Pioneer Way project.

The commission has also received flak for not strictly adhering to the results of a public survey of 11 possible art pieces. Although the current recommendation includes three of the public’s top-four favorite artists, its first decision only included two pieces.

The unexpected change in plans for funding the project, along with criticism over the survey results, means the arts commission will for the second time this month be forced back to the drawing table.

Funding the project with money from the arts commission’s budget, rather than with REET funds, means the group won’t be able to cover the extra $45,000 as it had hoped. And that means that it will have to entirely rethink what pieces to recommend for commission.

“It may be that we won’t be able to purchase four pieces,” arts commission member Rick Lawler said.

Currently, none of the four pieces being recommended is priced less than $20,000. Two come in at $30,000 each – three bronze ducklings and a moon and waves sculpture – while a basalt salmon pillar and a piece consisting of three columns of stacked glass come in at $22,500 and $21,000.

Lawler said he was relatively certain that the bronze ducklings for Ireland Street, which were selected in a special meeting May 16 with South Whidbey artist Georgia Gerber, and the basalt salmon pillar for Dock Street would move forward.

Lawler said the arts commission isn’t happy about the change in plans but that he believes the group is still committed to the downtown revitalization project. This is their chance to have a real impact in the community, he said.

“It’s not an opportunity that comes more than once or twice in a lifetime,” Lawler said.

Although the issue is set to go back before the city council next month, June 7, it’s not yet clear whether the arts commission will even have a chance to make new recommendations. Slowik said he decided to table the issue because he wanted the funding problem hammered out before it goes to the council, not so the arts commission could have more time to make new recommendations.

These are tough times, Slowik said, and if the art project is to succeed the funding has to be perfectly clear. But the project also has to be within budget and completed on time, he said.

“That’s what I call good management,” he said.

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