News

Chamber supports school effort

The 410-member Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce endorses the proposed high school bond measure, according to Executive Director Priscilla Heistad.

“We believe strong schools make a strong community,” she said.

The chamber is the initial point of contact for people interested in moving to north Whidbey Island, and Heistad said quality of schools is the number one question.

Members of Citizens for Better Schools presented the proposed plans for the high school remodel Thursday at the lunch meeting of the chamber. The renovation hinges on voter approval of a $45 million bond in March.

Presenter Pete Hunt acknowledged he may be preaching to the choir in telling the group of business people that new sporting and performing arts facilities would be good for the community. Hunt predicted the facilities, which could be used by the community as well as the school, would bring in hundreds of visitors to Oak Harbor.

The performing arts center component of the high school remodel was of particular interest to the chamber members. The 500-seat hall would be located in the center of the remodeled high school, at an estimated cost of $2 million, although Hunt said it is hard to separate out the cost of the hall due to its integration into the structure.

Tony Steadman of Whidbey Arts Foundation talked about the benefits of an arts center that could be used by community groups.

Steadman cited a study done for the foundation by a theatrical design group, that estimated 50 percent of the use of a facility of this type would be by non-school groups.

“It’s an ‘If you build it they will come’ type scenario,” Steadman said. The Whidbey Arts Foundation has been trying unsuccessfully for years to build a stand-alone arts center, but has been unable to finance such a venture.

Steadman said the way to make a performing arts center a reality in Oak Harbor is through “synergy and partnership.” The high school remodel is an ideal opportunity for such a partnership.

Luncheon attendants expressed concern about the cost of renting the facility, and whether it would be “user-friendly,” located in the center of the proposed high school.

School Superintendent Rick Schulte took the floor to explain the school legally has to charge for the use of the facility, but that they would apply fair market value, based on what schools with similar facilities charge. There would be the opportunity to negotiate rental agreements based on many factors, he said.

In answer to why the facility was planned at only 500 seats, with an 1,800 member student body, Schulte said it was a compromise between cost and use estimates. The Whidbey Arts Foundation study suggested 500 to 700 seats would be an optimal size for both school and community use.

When Hunt said the state would contribute approximately $12 million of the $57 million project, he was asked if that funding was certain, given the proposed state budget cuts affecting education.

Hunt explained that state matching funds for school construction projects come from timber excise tax dollars, not out of the general fund.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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