Oak Harbor's Big Dig

A pragmatic group of Pioneer Way business owners faced with an imminent water main replacement project recently discussed logistics and concerns with Oak Harbor staff during an informal open house.

An almost 80-year-old water main that has plagued the downtown area in recent months with continuous leaks and threats of complete failure will be replaced after Holland Happening. The 42-day project is currently out for bid.

Nearly 30 business owners attended the open house armed with questions for Project Engineer Arnie Peterschmidt and City Engineer Eric Johnston. The latter staff member said the replacement will extend on Pioneer Way from Ely Street to Midway Boulevard. The expedited undertaking was included in the budget and will not eat into funds earmarked for the larger road improvement projects on the drawing board.

“What we don’t want to do is turn this into a street reconstruction project,” Johnston said. “All we’re doing is replacing the pipe.”

The engineer said staff are sensitive to lessening the inevitable disruptions to downtown businesses a project of that magnitude will create. Open house attendees wanted to know exactly what “lessening” entails.

Some aspects of the project are still under consideration, which has prompted the city to solicit community feedback. The burning question remains when the contractor will perform the repairs.

“It would be really helpful if it could be done at night,” said The Jewelry Gallery owner Gloria Carothers.

Johnston said staff members are continuing to study the issue of nighttime versus daytime work, but the quandary is outstanding at this point.

“The city staff did not see a consensus on work time either way from the business owners during the open house or from comments received afterwards,” he said. “They are working on compiling information on hours of operation for the businesses within the project area to help in scheduling the work. As we get closer to the project start, the question of work times and schedule will be resolved.”

Carothers further recommended taking steps to keep at least one traffic lane open at all times. Peterschmidt said detours are a likelihood and there will be times when one segment of the road is closed.

Johnston said city staff are weighing efficiency and business impact as they determine the optimal work hours. One certainty is that sidewalks will remain open.

“We have to find a balance to do the right work at the right time,” he said. Nighttime work would be the least disruptive, as businesses are closed and only a few people reside in the construction area. And water shutoffs are not anticipated to last more than two to three hours.

Flaggers will complement clearly marked road signs, Johnston added, regardless of the chosen tack. Parking on the south side of Pioneer will be available for the duration of the project, but the north will be affected for a short time.

“The city will be providing signage during the project to public parking lots within walking distance to downtown,” he said.

Phil Sikes, owner of Whidbey Wild Bird, underscored the need for advance warnings to allow businesses ample time in which to plan around the construction.

“I have to be able to schedule these down to the nth degree or close the doors,” he said.

Johnston guaranteed at least 24 hours notice and although 42 days have been alloted for the project, certain contingencies have been embedded in the plan.

“What we try to do is give you as much notice as we can while also giving the contractor some flexibility,” Johnston said. “You never know exactly what you need until you open the ground.”

Cathy Collantes recommended looking for alternate sites for businesses relying on regular deliveries.

“We should make those lists in advance,” she said. “We need to plan ahead.”

Work hours will not spill over into weekends, Peterschmidt assured the owners.

“We’re looking at a Monday to Friday work week,” he said. “A lot of contractors like to work four-tens.”

The successful bidder will have a monetary incentive to finish the work early and a different kind of monetary incentive not to go over the 42 days.

“The incentive for finishing early is $1,000 a day for up to 10 days,” Johnston said Monday at a Governmental Services Committee meeting. “And there’s a fine of $1,000 a day for finishing late.”

Paint Your World owner Ron Apgar pledged assistance from the Harborside Shops Merchants Association.

“We do have a merchants association and we will help you as much as we can,” he told city staff.

Comments are being sought from community members and may be submitted electronically on a city-moderated blog set up at

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