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County money aimed at Pioneer Way project

The Pioneer Way of tomorrow will beckon people to stop and shop, in stark contrast to the current narrow, faux-thoroughfare that has become arguably the best — or worst — place on Whidbey Island to get a vehicle door amputated.

An $8.42-million project proposed by the city of Oak Harbor would completely reconstruct the downtown, creating a pedestrian-oriented street in the heart of the historic shopping area. The lofty undertaking would serve to enhance the downtown’s desirability for commercial and retail development activity.

The Island County Council of Governments recommended Tuesday that the county commissioners approve a $1 million shot in the arm for the street improvements. The dollars would come out of the Rural County Economic Development Fund.

The Council of Governments consists of elected leaders from Island County’s municipalities and port districts.

Steve Powers, Oak Harbor development director, and Rob Voigt, a city senior planner, laid out the plan for the proposed project at the Tuesday meeting. The $1 million from the .09 sales tax rebate pool of money would be added to an additional $1 million from Real Estate Excise Tax funds and $1.16 million from city bonds, both of which would have to first be supported by the City Council.

The other $1.3 million for the above-street components, which would include landscaping, angled parking and serpentine travel lanes, will be solicited from property owners in the form of local improvement district, or LID, tax dollars.

“The goal is not only to make parking much more convenient but to pick up precious pedestrian space,” Powers added.

For replacement of below-street utilities — water, sewer and storm drain — the city has budgeted $1.8 million. A final $2.16 million would be needed to finance off-street plazas, although the funding source has not yet been identified.

Voigt said development in the area, which currently has a building vacancy rate of between 8 and 10 percent, could generate 20 to 25 part-time jobs and 12 full-time positions in the service industry within the first three years. And the city specialists estimated the creation of between 30 and 60 construction-oriented jobs within the first three years and 45 to 60 within five years. Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard questioned the numbers.

“I have to tell you that number looks very high to me,” she said, referring to the construction job estimates.

Voigt assured the council that the estimates were conservative, the city intentionally opting to paint a picture that was “not too rosy.” Conard said that after the “initial splash,” the figures will not be sustainable. Powers was more confident.

“We’re fairly comfortable those numbers will work over time,” he said.

The downtown vacancies should vanish as the project progresses, the senior planner continued.

“There’s a fair amount of opportunity there for redevelopment,” Voigt said. “There are already some pending applications. We feel this will help those along.”

The project is expected to directly serve approximately 101 businesses, including 71 along Pioneer Way and 30 along the adjacent streets of SE Fidalgo Avenue and SE Bayshore Drive. A pending development project located on the 1000 block of Pioneer would bring nearly 16,000 square feet of retail space. And as infill development ensues, property owners will likely reinvest in their existing buildings.

“It can be a relatively intensely developed area over time,” Powers said.

County Commissioner Mac McDowell was enamored with the project, especially in light of the Navy’s announcement that the new EA-6B Growler squadrons will be stationed at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. He said Oak Harbor’s paradigm has shifted dramatically in the last year.

“The city is now, again, ensured the Navy’s going to be there for the next 30 years,” he said.

Voigt agreed that a collective apprehensiveness with the city’s tenuous commercial future has given way to a renewed interest in development.

The council stipulated that the $1 million be used within five years and that the group be given annual progress reports.

“I look forward to walking down Pioneer Way,” said Island County Commissioner John Dean. Since he and McDowell make up two-thirds of the county board of commissioners, the chance of the recommendation getting county approval looks good.

Just as Rome was not built in a day, Pioneer Way will not be reconfigured in a year.

“This is our first step,” Powers said. “We haven’t even begun to meet with business owners yet to discuss the formation of a local improvement district. We hope to do that starting the first of the year.”

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