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Candidates offer business ideas

The candidates for Oak Harbor mayor and city council all agree that action needs to be taken to improve and diversify the city’s economy, but they offer only a few specifics about such action.

Two mayoral and four city council candidates addressed a packed conference room at the Best Western during the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday.

The candidates got the chance to address a single question: “What are your goals . . . to retain and encourage existing business and attract new business?”

Clairann Haney, a council candidate running against Sue Karahalios, offered the most specific opinions and ideas. She said she’s in favor of lowering taxes, limiting development fees and recruiting new businesses. She suggested starting an apprenticeship program involving young job-seekers and business people.

Haney emphasized the importance of tourism and criticized the island-wide marketing program funded by lodging taxes. She said the “Do Nothing” campaign theme was too passive. “If we want people to come and come back to Oak Harbor,” she said, “we need to rethink that.”

Like the other candidates, Haney also said civic pride and working together are the key to economic success. “I think we can make great strides if we all work together,” she said.

Karahalios spoke about her experience as a legislator, which includes working with business leaders in Olympia to come up with a business philosophy plan. She said the city needs to create a positive business climate, as a well as an economic strategy.

“We should be working as part of a leadership team with the Chamber and the Economic Development Council,” she said.

Karahalios said fiber optics, with high-speed communications capabilities, are the key to the future of the economy.

After the forum, Karahalios complained that she didn’t get the question ahead of time and so wasn’t prepared for an answer.

Larry Eaton, a former councilman, is running against incumbent Nora O’Connell -Balda. He said the community needs to do something specific about revitalizing the downtown Oak Harbor area. He also suggested that the community could create a corporate-type structure to promote business growth in the city.

At the same time, Eaton said government shouldn’t dictate how business develops, but let the free market lead the way. “Our job is to create a climate where business can grow,” he said. “You guys are the talent.”

Eaton said it would be a good idea for the city to “actively try to get clean businesses to come to Oak Harbor.” The biggest challenge facing the city’s business environment, he said, is transportation infrastructure.

O’Connell-Balda talked about how well downtown Oak Harbor is doing economically, especially compared to three years ago. She said there are “a number of ways” that the city can improve the economy, but she didn’t offer any examples.

“It won’t happen,” she said, “unless we go out and look for it.”

Councilman Bob Morrison, who’s taking on Mayor Patty Cohen, said “the key to the future right now is transportation.”

“We talk about economic development,” he said, “we can’t have that without transportation.”

Morrison said the city needs a working airport and a pier for ferries and other water transportation. Another key to business, he said, is fiber optics and high-speed internet.

Morrison proposed that the city lure business by working with firms that relocate companies. He also proposed creating a package to send to businesses. The package, he said, could include a DVD movie about Oak Harbor’s virtues.

All this could be done, he said, without more staff or a large investment of city funds.

“We need to do it,” he said. “Just get off the little things we sit on and move forward.”

Mayor Cohen, on the other hand, said she would like to work with the city council to develop an economic philosophy and strategy with funding to support it.

She also discussed her successes while in office and listed her goals for the future. Specifically, Cohen said she wants to work on completing the waterfront trail and the proposed city pier. She said she wants to work with the library board to site the proposed new library building, and with the school board to improve public schools.

“I’ve focused the last four years on setting the tone to make the city more business friendly,” she said. “Why would you want to change direction?”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

Community Events, April 2014

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