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Oak Harbor: Navy Town USA?

Visit the PBY Seaplane Museum. Stroll downtown, with its unique 1940s-era Navy architecture, and gaze upon the historic military displays in storefronts.

Hike miles of waterfront trail from Freund Marsh past the marina to Maylor’s Point. Sleep and eat in the luxury of a three-story waterfront hotel.

The sign post up ahead reads, “Welcome to Oak Harbor. America’s Premiere Naval Community.”

This is Mayor Patty Cohen’s vision for Oak Harbor’s future, which she laid out for the city council in her State of the City address last week. Her “Championing Change” plan focuses on redevelopment and revitalization of Oak Harbor’s faltering downtown and waterfront area.

“We need to develop a vision for the future by looking at the past...,” she said. “We need to embrace a city-wide entrepreneurial spirit and start looking at things through the eyes of a developer.”

Cohen’s proposal purposely includes many ambiguities and ideas that have been batted around the city since Nixon was in office. She even suggests dusting off Harbor Watch, a 1990 redevelopment plan for the downtown and waterfront, and reconsidering it.

The most novel aspect of Cohen’s plan, however, is her approach. She wants to get city government directly committed to the effort. Not only is she making the plan her top priority, she proposed that the city council draft and adopt a “work program” that includes specific projects and policies along with financial support.

Also, Cohen said the community should finally decide on a single overall “theme” for the Old Town area. Over the years, many themes, like “Dutch” and “maritime,” have been discussed. Cohen suggests the city should capitalize on its long history and continued relationship with the Navy to bill itself as “America’s Premier Naval Community.”

“Oak Harbor became nationally known because of the Whidbey 24 incident, which allowed us to really showcase our community,” she said. “Not taking advantage of the full spectrum of opportunities we have in our very special relationship with the Whidbey Island naval base would be a great loss.”

To go along with the Navy theme, Cohen said the city should get behind an ongoing effort to start a PBY Seaplane museum at the Navy’s Seaplane Base. She proposed that all the empty storefronts downtown could be turned into a “walking museum” with historic military displays. She said the council could pass a design guideline ordinance to promote, and perhaps protect, downtown architecture that “represents the influence of the Navy in the 1940s.”

While Cohen proposed and re-proposed a set of specific ideas, she stressed that nothing is set in stone yet. She wants the council and the community to be involved in the decision-making process as much as possible.

She half-heartedly proposed the creation a new committee to look at downtown revitalization, but she later said that may not be the best way to proceed. After all, there have been a half dozen or so downtown committees over the years — the Whidbey Improvement Network, the Downtown Development Committee, the Pioneer Area Improvement Foundation — that have accomplished little.

Yet despite all her energy and ideas, Cohen knows that she still has to battle the obstacle that has kept any concrete improvements from happening downtown for three decade — the community’s resistance to change.

Cohen says sees her role mainly as a visionary and a cheerleader, which is why she focused much of her speech on the need for the community, and especially the council, to take risks and accept change.

“We have to ask ourselves what is holding this all up,” she said in an interview Monday. “Besides the money not being there, the biggest problem is our inability to be change-ready. I firmly believe the people are the gatekeepers of change.

“Our resistance to change is the biggest barrier to making this happen downtown.”

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