Tourism campaign in doubt

Oak Harbor’s decision to disengage itself from an islandwide marketing campaign is having a ripple effect on other Whidbey Island communities.

Should city council members opt to withdraw completely from the campaign at the end of this year, it will likely mark the end of the marketing effort.

“I don’t feel any ill will towards anyone,” said Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton of Oak Harbor’s decision to leave the islandwide tourism group. “I think it’s a shame that we started down this road and we’ve developed a program that the public relations firm said at the beginning would take time to develop. I think we’re getting to the place where we can effectively evaluate that and now we’re going to quit. I think that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

Indeed, privately, some community leaders from other parts of the island are fuming at Oak Harbor’s decision to remove itself from the arrangement.

Part of it likely is rooted in a bit of parochialism and ongoing clashes over identity. In many ways, Whidbey Island is really three places, all linked together by a narrow, winding highway and beautiful, albeit decidedly different, points of view.

Southern islanders, many of them wealthy, former urbanites who moved to Whidbey seeking a simpler lifestyle, pride themselves on their support for the arts and wariness over commercial development.

Central Whidbey stakes its claim to its historic homes and scenic farmscape.

Oak Harbor, a rapidly growing Navy town, has often been seen as the odd-man out, with its big shopping centers and urban sensibilities.

Indeed, one slow-growth group in Coupeville dubbed itself Oh!Oh!, a thinly veiled dig at Oak Harbor, spelled out in the group’s initials.

Still, despite these differences, Oak Harbor officials signed on to the ad campaign in 1999.

Since then, the city, with its large hotels, has chipped in the lion’s share for the marketing campaign, dubbed “Do Nothing Here.”

In 2003, the city spent $69,500 on the promotion. The only larger contributor was Island County, which kicked in $79,500. Meanwhile, Langley spent $21,000 and Coupeville $10,500.

All together, the tourism marketing committee has taken in $745,000 since 2000 and has spent $600,000.

Some Oak Harbor City Council members say the money could be better spent on restrooms at the City Beach ball fields, or on rebuilding a pier.

“There’s so much that you can do here,” said Oak Harbor City Council member Sheilah Crider. “We have a unique and special place.”

Crider served for several years on the Island County Joint Tourism Marketing Committee, as a city representative.

She said the ad campaign drew negative feedback from Oak Harbor residents who felt the ads didn’t capitalize on the city’s strengths — even though the city was footing about 40 percent of the bill.

They also said brochures and a Web site designed by the ad agency (Big Bang of Seattle) showcased relatively few Oak Harbor scenes compared to other parts of Whidbey Island.

Crider and several other City Council members also grew dissatisfied with the city of Langley, which makes a 1 percent contribution in hotel-motel taxes to the campaign instead of the full 2 percent.

But others involved with the marketing effort say Oak Harbor officials knew Langley was committed to 1 percent from the outset.

“At the time this agreement was signed their 1 percent was locked up,” said Marshall Bronson, who chairs the joint tourism marketing campaign and is a Coupeville town council member. “Everyone went into this wide-eyed.”

Indeed, at the time, teaming up with other island communities seemed to make sense for Oak Harbor, especially when compared with past promotions.

The city of Oak Harbor has tried tourism campaigns that featured a dancing artichoke, for example, although no artichokes are grown here.

The Greater Oak Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce paid for a billboard for several years that featured a soaring eagle, a message that seemed to play up the city’s military roots, and little else.

So in 1999, many thought the city was finally heading in the right direction when it signed up with Langley, Coupeville and Island County government to produce an islandwide ad campaign. The campaign officially launched at the beginning of last year.

“Like any advertising campaign it takes a while to see whether it has results,” Bronson said.

Bronson, who owns the two-room, bed-and-breakfast Compass Rose in Coupeville, said he’s seen more tourists this year, but acknowledges, “You don’t know whether it’s this campaign or the economy is improving.”

Bronson has suggested that the extra 2 percent in hotel-motel taxes be repealed if Oak Harbor exits the joint agreement at year’s end.

“It’s not often that industries ask to have a tax on their business,” he said of the lodging industry. “I find it a bit of a perversion … I would suggest the tax be cancelled all together if it isn’t going to be used for that particular purpose.”

Added Commissioner Shelton: “The only reason the lodging industry supported this tax in the beginning is they believed it would be a consolidated effort to bring tourism to Island County and put people in beds.”

Promoting all of Island County, instead of each community piecemeal, is ultimately the best recipe for success, insists Randy Bradford, manager of Oak Harbor’s 103-room Coachman Inn.

“We don’t know where we would be without this campaign,” he said. “If tourists think of Whidbey Island instead of Friday Harbor, I’m happy. I want them to think of us at least. What’s good for a few will eventually be good for everybody.”

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