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Council slices tourism funds

Several Oak Harbor City Council members are mad enough at the City of Langley — and unhappy at the direction of an advertising campaign — that they voted to pull the city’s lodging tax from a county-wide marketing program to promote tourism.

Nevertheless, there is still a good chance that an agreement can be worked out. The city has to give a year’s notice before pulling out of the inter-local agreement with Island County, Coupeville and Langley. The council members also passed a motion Tuesday to immediately begin renegotiations with the other parties involved.

The council’s concern hinges on the fact that the City of Langley only contributes 1 percent of its lodging tax revenues to a county-wide marketing campaign, while Oak Harbor, Island County and Coupeville contribute 2 percent each. Originally, Langley officials could only contribute the 1 percent because the other 1 percent had been earmarked for a public restroom project.

Councilman Paul Brewer, however, pointed out that council members were told during a public meeting that Langley would pay the entire 2 percent once the restroom was completed. Instead, the one percent — about $12,000 a year — is being used to maintain the bathrooms.

“I would like to renegotiated it,” Brewer said, “and make Langley step up to the plate.”

Neil Colburn, Langley’s mayor-elect, said Thursday that he was sorry that there wasn’t better communication between Oak Harbor and Langley officials beforehand, which may have avoided what he sees as a miscommunication. He explained that Langley City Council was contractually obligated to spend the 1 percent in question before they were approached with the marketing proposal.

“It wasn’t like we weren’t giving 1 percent,” he said, “it was that we only had 1 percent to give.”

Colburn said the idea of increasing Langley’s share to 2 percent after the restrooms were finished never was presented to the Langley council.

Nevertheless, the issue generated a lot of debate at Oak Harbor’s Tuesday night council meeting. Richard Pasewark, a city resident, expressed surprise that Oak Harbor would enter into a contract that would allow Langley to pay a smaller rate in the first place. “I think we were taken, to be quite honest,” he said.

On the other side, Councilman Richard Davis argued that continuing the marketing effort — and building “brand awareness” of the county — is more important than the squabble over who’s paying how much. “Quite candidly,” he said, “I don’t care what Langley is doing.”

Priscilla Heistad, Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce executive director, also urged the council to stay with the marketing effort. She said the money should be used to promote tourism, not renovate public restrooms in Oak Harbor, as a couple of council members suggested.

Brewer and Councilwoman Sheilah Crider have also expressed reservations about the “do nothing here” marketing campaign itself. Brewer said he was unhappy that the advertising overlooks Oak Harbor somewhat.

“What really disturbs me,” he said, “is that Oak Harbor isn’t being promoted as it should be.”

Bill Grant, a representative from the Seattle-based marketing firm Big Bang Idea Engineering, gave a presentation of the tourism promotion at the beginning of the meeting. The company has a three-year contract, beginning this year, to promote Whidbey and Camano islands as tourism destinations. The marketing is funded by the lodging tax: $243,000 for the first year, $170,000 for the second and $170,000 for the third.

The 2 percent lodging tax generates about $72,000 a year within the city of Oak Harbor.

Grant said the objective of the campaign, as set by a county-wide committee that governs the use of the tax, was “to generate multiple overnight stays, especially in the shoulder season.”

“Ultimately, our goal is to get more people to the front door,” he said.

According to Grant, the marketers chose to target the advertising in the greater Seattle area. There are ads on the sides of buses and in newspapers. They printed brochures, set up a Web site (donothinghere.com), and are working with a public relations firm to get features stories about the county in newspapers and on television.

Grant also explained the concept behind the “do nothing here” advertising campaign. He said the slogan doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do on Whidbey and Camano islands, but that it’s a perfect place for a stress-free vacation.

“It’s just a relaxed feeling that really happens here, no matter what you are doing,” he said. “There’s tons to do here.”

In the ads and in the brochure, the “do doing here” slogan is accompanied by black-and-white photos of people hiking scenic areas, fishing, beachcombing, or just watching the sunset.

But the presentation didn’t sway three of the council members. Brewer, Crider and Eric Gerber voted to send notice of the city’s intent to get out of the agreement. Davis and Nora O’Connell-Balda voted against the motion. Councilmen Bob Morrison and Danny Paggao were absent.

The year’s notice gives everyone involved an entire year to renegotiated the agreement. Likely solutions may be that Langley increases its contributions to 2 percent or that Oak Harbor drops its contribution level to 1 percent.

Davis made a motion to begin negotiations immediately, which was passed unanimously.

Colburn said he looks forward to talking about the the agreement with Oak Harbor officials. “I regret any misunderstanding that has happened between Langley and Oak Harbor,” he said. “I would look forward to meeting face to face with them to settle any issues.”

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

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