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Oak Harbor parade route dispute simmers

Jason McFayden, president of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce board, stands in a narrow section of Pioneer Way. The chamber decided not to route the Fourth of July parade down the road because of concerns about mixing large crowds and parade floats on the narrow road. - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Jason McFayden, president of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce board, stands in a narrow section of Pioneer Way. The chamber decided not to route the Fourth of July parade down the road because of concerns about mixing large crowds and parade floats on the narrow road.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

Pioneer Way in downtown Oak Harbor is once again at the center of controversy as upset merchants discovered that the Fourth of July parade will not travel on the skinny, one-way street through the retail core.

Part of the consternation comes from the fact that former Mayor Jim Slowik and his administration had promised downtown merchants that the controversial project to turn downtown’s main drag into a one-way street would have no impact on parades and events downtown.

New Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley summoned leaders of the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants Association and members of city administration to a strained meeting Monday morning at City Hall to discuss the parade route, which will follow Bayshore Drive instead of Pioneer Way.

Jason McFayden, president of the chamber board, and Chamber Director Jill Johnson were on the defensive as they questioned about the route. They defended the decision to pick the “safer route” because of concerns about the risk of mixing oversized parade floats, horses, large crowds and candy-chasing kids on the one-lane street, specifically at the narrow “bump out” areas.

“Our concern is for the safety of the 5,000 people who are going to be there,” McFayden said, adding that some parade participants indicated they wouldn’t be willing to go down Pioneer Way.

“I’m very, very sorry,” he said, ”but this parade is not for the downtown merchants. It’s for the people of Oak Harbor.”

Johnson said the parade is a chamber event and is covered by the chamber’s insurance company, which advised her to pick the safest route. She said she really wanted to have the parade on Pioneer Way for many reasons, but safety concerns were paramount.

“I appreciate the last-minute peer pressure, but there was time for this conversation previously,” Johnson told the mayor.

While at least some city officials were aware of the route, downtown merchants only found out last week when they received a written notice that the parade would be diverted a block away. Ron Apgar, president of the merchants group, sent an email to Johnson expressing apprehension over the decision and its impact on business and customers.

“We want to voice the concerns we have for the 42 businesses that will be impacted by this change in a negative way,” he wrote.

In response, Johnson sent an email explaining the concerns about safety with large crowds. She wrote that the street would be more appropriate for smaller parades.

“The chamber was very clear in our concerns about the parade when the street was being designed,” she wrote. “I expressed our worries multiple times and like you, we were given assurances that the street would work well for parades. Unfortunately, that simply was not the case.”

Monday, Apgar reiterated complaints about the lack of communication.

“You took something away from us and we want to know. We just want to know,” he said.

Kristi Jensen, a downtown merchant, said businesses have been preparing for the parade crowds, only to find out that the crowds won’t be there.

Johnson apologized for the lack of communication, but explained that a lot of “stakeholders” were involved in the decision. She said representatives from the Oak Harbor Rotary, which manages the parade, and the city were “at the table” when she made the decision at a meeting in early June.

The City Council approved a noise permit for the parade at the June 18 regular meeting. The document states that the parade will be “along Bayshore Drive and Pioneer Way.” Johnson said the chamber was ready to answer any questions about the parade at the public meeting.

The chamber’s website, however, doesn’t have any Fourth of July events on the calendar and the only information on the site doesn’t include the parade’s location.

Monday, McFayden and Johnson were obviously upset at being summoned by the mayor. Johnson said he was trying to use the downtown merchants and the mayor’s staff in an effort to pressure them into changing the route. She said the city staff members aren’t going to disagree with the mayor.

“They’re afraid to tell you the truth,” she said.

Dudley, however, said he wasn’t trying to pressure anyone, but he just wanted to understand where the safety concerns came from. He said he sympathizes with the merchants after all they’re been through with the one-way project.

Many downtown merchants were opposed to city plans to convert Pioneer Way into an eastbound, one-way street. Dudley fought the proposal when he was on the council and repeatedly questioned whether the street revision would impact parades and events.

Then, Native American remains were discovered when the road was dug up last year, which delayed the project for months as the merchants struggled to attract customers to the torn-up, closed-off street. To top it off, it turned out that city staff members ignored a warning from the state about the possibility of cultural resources in the area.

 

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