Ideas for downtown
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:37 PM
"In 1971, a Whidbey News-Times reporter wrote a five-part series on Oak Harbor's downtown area, which city leaders described as blighted and an eye sore.To help revitalize the area, several business people had some rather familiar suggestions. Like changing Pioneer Way to a one-way street, raising building height limits, creating a pedestrian-friendly area, decorating and landscaping, or hiring an architect to improve the look.George Churchill, who was president of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce at the time, said his goals included a building convention center, promoting the city as a whole and a creating a port district.Nearly 30 years later, the downtown area is still a hit-and-miss business environment. But several ideas, many of them familiar, are generating new excitement and hope. Dozens of community members are involved in eight different, on-going committees that are working on, and having success with, projects aimed at renewing old town Oak Harbor and the waterfront.The community is alive with progressive thoughts and plans, Churchill said recently. There are so many people who want to see good things happen in Oak Harbor.Churchill leads the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce's Waterfront Improvement Network, a committee that is trying to get a destination hotel/conference center built on the downtown waterfront. He said he is very optimistic right now about the project coming through, even if it has taken 30 years. To update the Oak Harbor City Council on the status of the effort, the WIN committee is holding a four-hour workshop Monday night. He said potential developers may be at the meeting.Patti Carter, the owner of Pony Mailing and Business Center, is another community member who has worked to make something happen downtown. She's involved in a number of committees that are taking different tactics at renewing the area.I'm more hopeful now then I have been in years, Carter said. She said the problem in the past has been that things happened too slow and people just got burned out.But not her. I decided that either I will die or something will happen, she said. I figured if I kept beating my head against the brick wall, maybe a brick will come loose.Here's the latest on the many community projects aimed at revitalizing the downtown area:Waterfront Improvement NetworkIn April, the WIN committee helped put together a limited liability corporation of area business people that tied up 4.5 acres of waterfront property on the market with an earnest money agreement. The acreage in question is an empty lot on Bayshore Drive next to Mi Pueblo restaurant.At the same time, the chamber of commerce hired a marketing company to find a developer or hotel company that would actually buy the land and build the envisioned 150-room destination hotel, convention center, or resort that may include a performing arts center.Churchill said the group must find a developer by Aug. 13 or the land will go back on the market.The WIN workshop is scheduled for 6:30 Monday night at the Skagit Valley College Hayes Hall.Municipal PierDoug Francis, the vice chair of the Oak Harbor Municipal Pier Committee, said the long, complicated process of building a T-shaped pier at Flintstone Park is moving right along.In March, the City Council approved a contract with a Seattle consulting team to begin the complex permitting process, soil testing and surveying of the area. Right now the city is waiting for the official OK from the Department of Transportation before signing the contract and putting the consultants into action.Beyond the permitting process, the biggest obstacle is funding the $3.7 million project. The committee and city planners hope that the majority of the money will come from state and federal transportation grants, with a local match of less than $400,000.Performing arts centerWhidbey Arts Foundation, a non-profit group made up of local people, has three prospective sites for building a performing arts center downtown. The Freund family offered to donate a site near the RV park; developer Bill Massey offered the empty lot next to the former Whidbey Stationers building; and the WIN committee suggested incorporating an arts center into the convention center.Dick Johnson, a board member of the foundation, said that finding construction funding is the biggest hurdle for the group. To raise money, he said he's trying to get the Oak Harbor's Jazz Festival going again. Right now he's working on a business plan for starting up the festival again, which ended last year after organizers pulled out.In addition, Johnson said the foundation is putting on various performances this year to raise money. The group also plans to look into grants.PBY museumYakima resident Win Stites is the head of a non-profit group that is trying to get a PBY seaplane museum built on the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station's Seaplane Base, which is just down the road from downtown Oak Harbor.Stites said the group envisions a museum built like a hangar, with a PBY for display, a video theater, conference room, a gift shop and a room for model-making. He said the group is also hoping to preserve a few of the Victory homes - which the Navy plans to raze - and incorporate them into the museum.Currently Stites said the group is waiting for approval from the Navy to build a museum at the Seaplane base.DecorationsGloria Carothers, the owner of the Jewelry Gallery, said that the Operation Decoration group is currently in the midst of a drive to raise $45,000 for decorations for the coming holiday season.The group was started two years ago by former Councilman Jim Earl, who was unhappy with the lack of holiday decorations in the downtown area. Now the group wants to expand to other parts of the city and has developed a five-year decorating plan.Last Christmas, Carothers said the group put both lighted decorations and garlands along Pioneer Way. They started an annual Christmas parade, did a tree lighting at the Old Town Mall and strung lights on the City Beach windmill, all with the help of other groups.Anyone interested in helping or donating can contact Carothers at 679-3700 or write Operation Decoration, P.O. Box 432, Oak Harbor.One-way streetCity planners formed the Downtown Circulation Committee, made up of downtown business people and residents, to look at ways of solving traffic problems on Pioneer Way and surrounding roads.After much public input, the options have been narrowed down to two proposals, one of which turns Pioneer Way into a one-way street in some areas.City Planner Tom Burdett said the City Council recently authorized the next phase, which is to have an urban design consultant create sketches of the two proposals.Pioneer PlazaOne of the first major project proposed for the downtown area was a plaza on Pioneer Way. Originally conceived as a clock tower, the concept went through a revision that has support from city leaders.Architect Chris Saxman designed the Pioneer Plaza, estimated to cost $500,000, to cover an existing city-owned parking lot downtown and serve as a focal center of the community. The most unique thing about the design is that the floor would be a giant tile-and-concrete map of the city and the harbor, with granite plaques at the scene of important events.Burdett said the project, which has been overshadowed by other proposals, is on hold until a funding source is found.PAIFFirst there was the Chamber's Downtown Development Council, which helped create Harbor Watch, a redevelopment plan for the city's downtown and waterfront. The 1990 plan, which was spurred by the base closure scare, is the source of many of the ongoing redevelopment ideas, including a convention center and a pier.Carter, a former DDC member, said the group later became an independent, non-profit organization and renamed itself the Pioneer Area Improvement Foundation.But Carter said PAIF is currently dormant while the members are involved in other groups and projects."