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Fingers point at lack of progress

Like many people in the community, Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen is frustrated that little progress seems to be happening with the city’s list of $90 million in non-enterprise capital projects.

Thousands of taxpayer dollars and countless hours by volunteers and city staff alike have been spent on the long list of promised projects, from the Windjammer downtown and waterfront redevelopment plans to marina redevelopment to a new senior center to a new animal shelter.

The problem, as Cohen sees it, is that the city council simply won’t pick a top priority project that city leaders and the community can focus on.

“They didn’t want to do it. They pushed away from the table,” Cohen said. “It feels like we are running in too many directions and nothing gets accomplished.”

Most of the council members share her frustration, but when it comes to parsing out blame, they point back at the mayor.

“We stated emphatically that we needed a workshop to set the priority,” Councilwoman Sue Karahalios said, “and a workshop has not been set. We’ve been told that we don’t set those.”

Councilman Paul Brewer agreed.

“The mayor loves to play the blame game,” he said. “She needs to look in the mirror. She is the one who never follows through.”

Councilman Eric Gerber said both the council and administration are at fault for stalling because they’ve been busy with other issues, but he’s hopeful that progress will come soon.

“All it’s going to take is to schedule a meeting and pick a number-one project,” he said. “Once the project is picked, I think all the council will be behind it.”

But in interviews with the News-Times this week, the mayor and council members suggested that choosing a number-one priority will be no easy task for the group of strong-minded individuals.

Cohen feels that Highway 20 widening — to reduce congestion at the south end of the city — should be at the very top of the list, although she doesn’t want the city to spend money on it. It’s the state’s responsibility to fund the $13 million project on the state highway.

The mayor feels that placing highway widening as the top priority shows state officials that the city is very serious about wanting the project to happen. Also, she said the city needs to increase the effort of lobbying state officials and lawmakers.

“We need to lean into the wind on this one,” she said. “Obviously we need to be a lot more aggressive.”

Cohen said marina redevelopment should be the number-one priority of projects that actually require a city commitment of money.

Of the seven members of the council, three said that the $7 million municipal pier should be the top priority. One council member said a scaled-back version $19 million marina project should be the number-one priority, although a couple of others said the work should be among the top priorities. One council member supported Pioneer Way reconstruction and streetscape. Another wants the realignment of Bayshore Drive along the north end of Windjammer Park at the top of the list.

Karahalios is unique in that she wouldn’t pick a top priority because she doesn’t think it’s a good idea. She said there should be a priority list, but that it should be a “fluid” document in which the top five projects can change places as grant funding opportunities present themselves.

In contrast, the mayor and several council members feel it vital to pick a top priority. Cohen said it’s important to have a number-one priority chosen so that city leaders have a united message when they meet with state and federal legislators.

“It makes it really difficult when the council can’t pick a priority,” she said. “They have seven different number-one priorities.”

Karahalios, a former state legislator, said the mayor simply misunderstands how lobbying works.

“We need to be fluid so we can respond to what the state and federal government does and where the money is,” she said.

The councilwoman believes that major projects can be accomplished with grant funding, although she admits that city hasn’t had a very good history of actually getting projects accomplished with state or federal money.

“Oak Harbor has not been smart about how it goes after grants,” she said. “Oak Harbor has not been smart about lobbying state and federal legislators.”

Karahalios did say she feels that marina redevelopment should be one of the top priorities.

The issue of prioritization has been something the council has grappled with for many months. The main problem is money. Because of the bare-bones budget, pretty much the only ways the city can fund large-scale projects is by either asking the voters to pass a levy for a specific priority or through grant funding.

Last fall, councilmen Gerber, Brewer and Danny Paggao took a stand against the city continually spending city money on the non-enterprise projects without having a clear list of priorities by delaying a request to hire a marina consultant.

In response, city staff provided the city council with a prioritized list of the $90 million in projects, based on a set of criteria. At the top of the list was the $19 million marina redevelopment project to dredge, do repairs and change the mix of slips to make it fit market demand.

The majority of the council felt that the list was a good starting point, but that it wasn’t perfect.

“The council was expected to adopt something we had no input in,” Crider said.

Crider feels that the extension and realignment of Bayshore Drive along the waterfront park should be the top priority. The project wasn’t even included in the $90 million list of projects, but has recently been put forward by city planning staff. It’s been in the city’s comprehensive plan for years.

“It will allow for the movement through the park to use the park at the maximum benefit,” she said.

Crider said the work on the marina is a close second. “It’s such an important and visible part of our city,” she said. “We are a waterfront city.”

Jim Campbell was the only member of the council who felt they should simply adopt the priority list provided by city staff. Like the staff, he feels the marina should be the top priority, though he thinks that it should be scaled down and that the marina pay for the work through its own revenues. A consultant estimated the marina can bond for about $9 million with its own revenues.

The closest that the council comes to a consensus is among three members — councilmen Larry Eaton, Brewer, Paggao — that feel the pier is the most important project. City staff and volunteers have been working on the project for about eight years. Nearly all of the permits have been procured. About $700,000 in city, state and federal money has been spent on the effort.

Eaton pointed out that the pier is part of the Windjammer Plan and should be a big boost to downtown business.

“We need to keep good faith with the merchants,” he said. “This was promised to them.”

Gerber said a $10 million project to reconstruct Pioneer Way downtown, making it into a pedestrian-friendly shopper’s paradise, would be the best use of city resources.

“It would be the greatest economic return for the city,” he said.

Besides Pioneer Way, Gerber said he’s in favor of making the pier a top project.

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