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Oak Harbor City Council halts downtown advertising effort
An effort to minimize the impact on Oak Harbor businesses affected by the SE Pioneer Way Improvement Project continues to be a source of controversy.
The Oak Harbor City Council Tuesday voted in a 5-2 decision to cease its current advertising campaign in all print, radio and television mediums. The decision followed complaints by downtown merchants and Councilman Scott Dudley.
Both argued that the existing advertising strategy was not what the city council intended in March when it approved a $167,500 mitigation plan. The aim was to provide relief to businesses through the promotion of events in the downtown area.
However, for the past several weeks the mitigation effort has been focused on full-page advertorials and question and answers in local newspapers. They were geared specifically towards answering questions and providing construction updates on the one-way street project.
“I don’t believe this is what we signed up for,” said Dudley, while holding up copies of the Whidbey News-Times.
Recognizing that construction would be a severe disruption to SE Pioneer Way businesses, Mayor Jim Slowik promised merchants early on that he would help shepherd them through the difficult time period.
But getting a mitigation plan in place has been a long and difficult process. Some plans, such as a comprehensive $486,000 proposal jointly developed by a paid consulting firm and the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, were rejected outright due to expense.
Other plans, smaller in scale, were also scratched due to the city council’s reluctance to approve an additional contract with Seattle-based EnviroIssues. It wasn’t until last March, the same month that construction began, that a plan was finally approved.
Pioneer Way merchant and property owner Kristi Jensen complimented Slowik on his good intentions, but said the latest proposal appears to be fatally flawed as very little has been accomplished.
Despite working closely with a city-hired marketing specialist, who is no longer with the city, to float numerous plans that would have promoted the downtown area, most of those ideas were not approved.
In fact, Jensen said the only thing done that has actually helped businesses was the creation of a map that highlights parking downtown and $1,000 provided for shirts. With so many ideas shunned, merchants are scratching their heads at the new advertorial campaign.
“We’re just really confused,” Jensen said.
According to City Administrator Paul Schmidt, the problem isn’t a lack of willingness or support on behalf of city staff. Rather, mitigation efforts have been hobbled by complications tied to Real Estate Excise Tax funds, the planned funding source.
“It hasn’t been because of a lack of effort or understanding what our intent going in was,” Schmidt said.
The city is constantly running into roadblocks about how and what the money can be spent on. Basically, if it goes toward anything that is not directly project-related, it’s an unauthorized use of the funds, he said.
The two other funding sources for the road project, $1 million in economic development funds received from Island County and city utility money, have similar legal restrictions.
Finance Director Doug Merriman said he’s been in constant contact with the Washington State Auditor’s Office. They talk so often and he asks so many questions that auditor staff have begun to jokingly refer to him as “Mr. What If” because of all his what-if questions.
In fact, the project-centric advertorials in the newspaper are the result of their feedback. Merriman said they suggested that the city could advertise downtown events by running ads that focus on how traffic and signage are to be handled.
“I think they are seeing that everyone has good intentions, and we all want to get to the same place, but we do have to do it within the guidelines of the constitution,” he said.
A representative from the auditor’s office was expected to meet with city staff in Oak Harbor Friday and it’s possible that something new could come out of that meeting.
While Dudley criticized the advertorials as being contrary to the plan previously approved and a “waste of taxpayers’ money,” several other council members expressed more concern that the city stay out of hot water and comply with state regulations.
Others said they thought the best support they could provide was to shop downtown whenever they can and to get the project done as quickly as possible.
“We just have to get the dirt covered, the sidewalks paved, and get out of there,” City Councilman Rick Almberg said.
City Councilwoman Beth Munns said she had high hopes for the mitigation effort. Finding out now that they can’t do much of what they promised has left the council with “egg on our face,” she said.
In the end, the council agreed to hold off on the advertorial campaign until after a meeting with the state auditor’s office. Munns and City Councilman Jim Palmer voted against the motion because they believed stopping the existing advertising would cause more harm than good.