News

City demands tourism changes

Oak Harbor members of the Island County Joint Tourism Committee have pushed through some significant changes in the way the group and its marketing coordinator operate.

The result, they say, is a new management plan that will provide more equitable treatment for Oak Harbor.

“We are a different animal than Coupeville or Langley,” said Randy Bradford, manager of Oak Harbor’s Coachman Inn and member of the committee. “To promote us in exactly the same way you promote Langley and Coupeville just doesn’t work.”

The three representatives from the county’s biggest city felt that the countywide marketing effort focused on other parts of Whidbey and Camano islands at the expense of Oak Harbor. They also saw accountability issues and other problems.

Jill Johnson, executive director of the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, is a member of the committee. She pointed out the tourism committee, unlike the various chambers or the Economic Development Council, hasn’t had to go before the governmental bodies that fund it and justify the program on a regular basis.

“I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect the committee to be able to demonstrate what they’ve done, why things have been done, and to point to what’s been accomplished,” she said.

Oak Harbor City Councilwoman Sue Karahalios, also a member of the committee, said planning was a problem.

“We were going in so many different directions and everything was so scattered,” said Karahalios. “There was a need for focus.”

Some of the concerns are nothing new. In 2003, the Oak Harbor City Council voted to give the required one-year notice to pull out of the tourism marketing program, which is funded from lodging taxes collected in each jurisdiction — Oak Harbor, Island County, Coupeville and Langley.

City leaders were upset that Langley was only contributing 1 percent of the lodging tax, while the other members gave 2 percent. Many also felt that the advertising campaign worked better for the more rural parts of the county; many didn’t like the “do nothing here” campaign slogan.

In the end, city leaders cut the city’s support to 1 percent of the so-called hotel-motel tax. The campaign slogan was dropped, the advertising agency was fired and a marketing coordinator was hired instead.

The most basic mission of the committee, Bradford explained, is to promote tourism of the entire county during the shoulder or off-season. Hotels are filled during the busy summer season, but they could use some help during the winter doldrums.

Cities and counties are able to leverage up to 4 percent in lodging taxes, which are taxes on overnight stays and hotel, motels and bed-and-breakfasts. The tax money is supposed to support tourism-related activities, and now because of a change in law, facilities.

The budget for the countywide tourism effort is just over $200,000 this year, including some carryover money, Johnson said.

But even with the changes in the group, Oak Harbor representatives aren’t completely satisfied.

The problem, the three Oak Harbor members say, is that the campaign has been geared to bed-and-breakfasts and the concept of a romantic getaway, which works well for quaint Coupeville and Langley. Oak Harbor is better known for offering a wide range of metropolitan services, Johnson said.

Bradford, for example, said the bulk of the Coachman Inn’s business comes from the Navy and other businesses. He guesses that the marketing effort has had little or no effect on his business.

Nevertheless, Bradford and the other two representatives aren’t advocating pulling out of the committee, though there are city leaders who would like to see that happen. Councilman Paul Brewer, for example, wants out as soon as possible. He advocates putting the city’s lodging taxes into the fund for the municipal pier project.

Karahalios said that Oak Harbor has an obligation to stay with the program now that the city’s representatives have asked for changes to the management plan. “We need to give this a chance,” she said.

Under the new plan, she said the committee will bring forward a report to the Oak Harbor City Council before the end of the year. She said the budget and spending will be formalized and approved by the committee. She expects that Oak Harbor will receive “a more equitable treatment” in spending.

Johnson also said the committee members think it’s important to be “neighborly” with other communities on the island and to help them out with a major marketing effort they couldn’t afford on their own.

Still, she said her support remains tenuous.

“We should give it a chance, but we should not let it drift along without direction forever,” she said.

Bradford emphasized the problems with the committee, in the scheme of things, are rather small and understandable. He said RoseAnn Alspektor, the marketing coordinator, has a difficult job making everyone happy.

“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to work with a committee of 18,” he said.

Even so, not all of the uneasiness about the committee was satisfied by the new management plan. There’s also a question of the coordinator’s salary, which some find bloated. Alspektor earns $48,000 a year for a job that’s not clearly defined as either full-time or part-time. Her assistant makes an additional $20,000 a year.

“I think we are a tad askew,” said Karahalios, who added that the committee should look at comparable salaries from the area. Alspektor’s salary is significantly larger than the salaries of either director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce or the Island County Economic Development Council.

Alspektor didn’t want to comment on the concerns about the program. She pointed to other members of the committee — Chairman Marshall Bronson and Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton — but the News-Times was unable to reach either man for comment.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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