Oak Harbor City Council to examine chamber of commerce funding

Holland Happening’s parade is a popular event to attend. The event is one of two large annual events put on by the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.  - Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
Holland Happening’s parade is a popular event to attend. The event is one of two large annual events put on by the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
— image credit: Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

A fight may be brewing over public funding of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

Oak Harbor City Council is set to consider renewal of a $72,000-a-year contract with the chamber during its Sept. 17 council meeting.

Councilman Rick Almberg is asking that the contract be considered earlier than usual so that the nonprofit organization will be in a better position to take part in his proposed initiative to lure new Navy families to live inside the city.

Mayor Scott Dudley said he will take the opportunity to talk with the City Council about reconsidering the amount the city gives to the chamber.

Dudley wants the council to consider looking at other opportunities for spurring the city’s economy.

He plans to share ideas proposed by his ad hoc committee on special events.

“Let’s look at the money the city is spending on the chamber,” he said, “and is that the best investment of dollars?”

Leaders of the chamber argue that Dudley doesn’t understand what the chamber’s mission is and what the chamber does with the funds it receives from the city.

“If the mayor would like the chamber of commerce to become an events committee, that’s not going to happen,” said Jason McFadyen, chamber president. “Our goal and our mission is to promote commerce in Oak Harbor, not to put on special events.”

The chamber already runs the Holland Happening and Fourth of July events each year.

Chamber Director Kathy Reed said the nonprofit organization doesn’t have the funding to run other festivals.

The money the chamber receives through the contract is for running the visitor information center, but it doesn’t even cover half the cost, she said.

Almberg inadvertently kick-started the conversation during the last council meeting. He noted that the population of personnel at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is increasing significantly.

He made a motion, which passed unanimously, for the city to work with other community stakeholders — including the chamber, the school district, the county and Realtors — to create an organized plan for encouraging sailors and their families to live in Oak Harbor.

Almberg said all of the stakeholders would benefit from the increase in Navy personnel population.

“Anacortes is already going after them,” he said. “We are a little behind the curve.”

As a related motion, he asked for the contract with the chamber to be placed on the Sept. 17 council agenda; it’s due to expire at the end of the year.

Almberg said during an interview with the  that he wants to settle the contract early so that the chamber leadership can concentrate on the initiative.

“The best way to motivate people is to take uncertainty away,” he said. “From my perspective, it was important to have everyone on board thinking they are stakeholders.”

Almberg said he doesn’t have a problem with taking a hard look at the contract.

“The mayor may have a point that they should be involved in other events,” he said.

“I don’t think the mayor is off base in thinking they could do more.”

Dudley claims that city contributes more to the Oak Harbor chamber than other municipalities give to their chambers. He said he’ll present the numbers to the council during an upcoming workshop.

Dudley said he formed his ad hoc committee on special events in January of last year.

Dudley claims the Oak Harbor Jazz Festival came out of his committee.

Former downtown merchant Michael-John Paparella developed the idea for the jazz festival, but went to the ad hoc committee with the proposal after others weren’t receptive.

Other ideas from the ad hoc committee include a crab festival and a wine and beer festival, Dudley said.

Dudley said he’s also interested in spurring a “Main Street” program similar to the one in Ellensburg.

The Ellensburg Downtown Association is based on the “National Main Street Center’s 4-Point Main Street approach,” according to the group’s website.

Dudley said he invited the director to speak at a council meeting in October.

McFadyen agrees that downtown is an important part of the city, but he wonders about the mayor’s overwhelming focus on the single area of commerce.

“There’s more to Oak Harbor than Pioneer Way,” he said. “It’s beautiful after the construction project, I like going down there, but other businesses in Oak Harbor need help.

“It would be great to have an event on Midway. That street is dying.”


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