Marina stays first priority

Development of the Oak Harbor Marina is the city’s top priority among $92 million in projects.

The seven members of the Oak Harbor City Council met during the economic development meeting Thursday night to set priorities among a list of largely quality-of-life-type projects that don’t have dedicated funding sources — unlike water or sewer lines, for example.

In the end, the council approved a priority list created by staff, based on a hierarchal list of criteria, last fall. The list was previously passed over by council over concerns about the criteria and that some projects were missing — most notably a new city hall.

Only Councilman Paul Brewer voted against it, after suggesting that the marina and pier be packaged together and set as the No. 1 priority. Mayor Patty Cohen was absent.

The priority list has the $19 million marina redevelopment project as the top project, followed by $10.6 million Pioneer Way reconstruction and streetscape, and the $13 million widening of Highway 20. The pier project is ranked eighth.

Both marina and pier supporters spoke at the beginning of the meeting, urging the council to pick their projects.

“The marina is by far the most visible and valuable asset for Oak Harbor,” said Steven Williford, marina committee member.

Barbara Berry-Jacobs said downtown retailers poured huge amounts of money into renovations because they thought the pier was coming.

“They were promised the pier,” she said.

Councilman Larry Eaton questioned what sense it makes to have the marina as the No. 1 project. He pointed out that the marina committee has created a phased approach to doing the needed work that will be funded by marina users. Members of the committee are on record saying they don’t expect any money from the city.

Eaton asked why even have the marina on the list if it doesn’t need the support from the city.

“It’s not an issue for the city if the marina can pay for itself,” he said.

In response, Harbormaster Mack Funk said the first phase can be funded by marina revenues, but no details have been worked out on either the shape or financing of future phases. That work is years away.

Gerber had earlier said he didn’t even consider the marina to be part of the list anymore because the funding was figured out. But Thursday, Gerber made the motion early in the meeting to approve the list suggested by staff, with the marina at the top. He didn’t explain his reasoning.

Before the vote, Councilman Jim Campbell criticized the other council members for not approving the staff’s list long ago.

“This meeting tonight is wasting an awful lot of time we could be going to work on this,” he said.

Councilwoman Sheilah Crider questioned whether the highway project should be on the list since it is the state’s responsibility to fund the entire amount, but other members said its placement would send a message to Olympia.

Plans for a new city hall building were placed at the bottom of the list.

Members of the municipal pier committee, who have been working on the project for eight years, left the meeting obviously unhappy at the prospect that their project is dead.

Finance Director Doug Merriman said the city will have to pay back nearly $493,000 in grants that were spent on the pier project if it’s not completed. He said he started budgeting a special fund in the general fund to pay back the state and federal grants in the years 2011 to 2016. Also, the city has already spent more than $130,000 on the pier project.

Brewer wasn’t happy. “It’s taxpayer money that was wasted,” he said.

Still, it’s not absolutely clear if any of the projects are out of consideration or what exactly the priority list means. Mayor Patty Cohen had secured a promise last week from council members to “let go of some of these projects.”

Members of the community, including a potential candidate for mayor, have said the city should focus on one top-priority project and complete it before focusing on anything else. But council and staff seem to have a different view.

“It’s not as if No. 1 is the only one we will be working on,” Campbell said.

Merriman agreed. “We don’t have to do one and bring it to completion before we go to the next one,” he said. The purpose of the prioritized list, he said, is as a decision-making tool when more than one project qualifies for a single funding source.

Merriman said it’s up to the council to decide whether to continue to spend money and staff time on projects that are not ranked high on the list, like the pier and most of the Windjammer downtown redevelopment project.

But even with a new priority list, Oak Harbor virtually has no money to spend on any of the projects. At the end of the meeting, Gerber said it was time to take a bold step and ask voters to fund a project.

“I venture to say if we don’t do that, these projects won’t get done,” he said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611.

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