Tourism campaign in doubt

Tourism can be a touchy issue for Whidbey Island’s biggest city.

Home to a Navy base, big-box retail stores and fast food restaurants, Oak Harbor isn’t quite as quaint as the rest of the island — a rural place where charming bed-and-breakfasts and funky art shops dominate.

That difference is but one of many reasons an islandwide promotional campaign fueled by hotel and motel taxes has broken apart in recent months.

In December, Oak Harbor City Council members voted to pull out of the joint agreement with other island cities, and the county, kicking off discussions that will continue for months.

At the end of this year, the city will legally be able to withdraw from the agreement. Until then, discussions continue on whether the city should contribute any of its hotel-motel tax dollars toward a campaign that some feel is better suited for more rural spots of Whidbey and Camano islands.

And because Oak Harbor is the second largest financial contributor to the campaign, if the city opts to withdraw from it completely, it likely spells the end of the joint marketing effort.

The city single-handedly contributes fully 40 percent of the tax dollars that go toward the island-wide campaign, best known for its “Do Nothing Here” advertising theme.

The tax is paid by visitors who stay at Whidbey and Camano island hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts.

Cities routinely collect 2 percent in hotel-motel taxes that help pay for their own tourism promotions, such as billboards and brochures. A state law allows cities and towns, as well as counties, to tack on an additional 2 percent for a total of 4 percent in overnight lodging taxes.

That additional 2 percent is what is funding the joint marketing campaign.

Oak Harbor, with large several-story hotels that cater to military personnel and those who do contract work at the base, collected nearly $70,000 in such hotel-motel taxes last year.

All told, the city has collected about $250,000 toward the advertising campaign since it was initiated in 2000.

The campaign aims to be both witty and casual, asking visitors to leave the traffic and headaches of the Interstate 5 corridor behind and come and “do nothing here.”

But some Oak Harbor City Council members not only consider the ad campaign to be ineffective, they also say it isn’t fair.

That’s because the city of Langley is chipping in just 1 percent of its additional 2 percent in hotel-motel taxes toward the promotion. The southern Whidbey Island city dedicated the remainder of its money to building and maintaining public restrooms.

Now some Oak Harbor council members are interested in building their own restrooms with the tax dollars that are collected.

The restrooms, they say, could be located at the ball fields near City Beach Park.

“We know that a number of people, both locals and tourists, could certainly use those facilities,” said Oak Harbor City Council member Sheilah Crider.

Crider hasn’t been fully satisfied with the direction of the joint marketing effort. Until recently, she was one of Oak Harbor’s representatives on the 18-member Island County Joint Tourism Marketing Committee, which gathers once a month to discuss ways to promote all of Island County.

Crider said that she and other Oak Harbor council members did not realize the ad campaign would do so little for Oak Harbor.

“We had no idea what the campaign was going to be,” Crider said.

The city council voted in 1999 to commit to the campaign, but it wasn’t fully developed until 2002, and wasn’t launched until the beginning of 2003.

But some say Oak Harbor council members aren’t giving the campaign enough time to be successful.

“It’s brand new,” said Priscilla Heistad, executive director of the Greater Oak Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce.

When Heistad came on board a few years ago, the city had already committed to the joint advertising campaign.

But she said the idea of promoting all of Whidbey Island, as well as Camano Island, is a good one.

“We really feel we had more to promote if we promoted the entire county, versus each individual community,” Heistad said.

As chamber director, Heistad receives some money from the campaign to help pay for time she spends away from her other duties.

Heistad said the city might be wise to continue chipping in at least 1 percent toward the campaign rather than dumping it entirely.

But she says spending part of the money on a tangible project, such as rebuilding the city’s pier and encouraging a passenger ferry, makes sense.

“Take 1 percent back and use that as a place to start building a tourist attraction for Oak Harbor,” she said. “But still be part of the campaign.”

Randy Bradford, who manages Oak Harbor’s Coachman Inn, also said it would be premature to pull out from the joint marketing effort entirely.

“I’ve been a proponent for a long time,” said Bradford, who sits on the joint tourism marketing committee as a representative of the island’s lodging industry. “I like the campaign. I think it’s a smart, clever campaign.”

Bradford said he wouldn’t mind taking back 1 percent of the lodging tax to spend on a tangible tourism project, such as rebuilding the pier.

But constructing restrooms at the ball field doesn’t make sense, he said. Other cities, such as La Conner, Langley and Friday Harbor, have built restrooms with hotel-motel taxes because they already had tourists they needed to accommodate.

“They’re trying to take care of the tourists they have,” he said. “Our main business is from the Navy and the businessmen and contractors from the Navy.”

As for tourists, Bradford said, “We’re just trying to get them here. Then we can worry about finding them a place to go to the bathroom.”

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