How to attract tourists

Over the last week and a half, Oak Harbor business owners and residents may have noticed an enthusiastic man who resembles Dr. Phil, the TV therapist, around the city, asking a lot of questions.

He’s name is Roger Brooks and he’s here to boost the city’s economy by accomplishing one deceptively simple-sounding goal: Bring more tourists to the city. Or even more specifically, he hopes to lure affluent visitors to downtown Oak Harbor, where they will spend money in unique shops and quaint restaurants.

“Those four blocks on Pioneer Way are the heart and soul of Oak Harbor,” Brooks told an audience of about 50 local politicians, business leaders and residents during a presentation at the Senior Center last week.

Oak Harbor City Council hired Brooks, a tourism consultant with the Olympia-based firm Destination Development, Inc., to do a tourism assessment, tourism development and marketing plan for the city. The decision to hire Brooks for $48,000 was met with some skepticism from members of the Chamber of Commerce, so Brooks had a tough sale to make.

“You must make something happen,” he said, “because communities across the state are passing you up.”

In the end, even Brooks’ toughest critics were guardedly hopeful that he could do what so many people with so many plans have tried to do in the past in Oak Harbor, but failed to accomplish. That is, to get folks to agree and then actually get something done.

“If he can find funding, if he can get the city council on board, then great,” Chamber of Commerce Director Priscilla Heistad said after the presentation, which she said included few new ideas. “It doesn’t matter who gets the credit as long as the results are there.”

Brooks’ presentation was the culmination of the assessment, or what he called “a no-holds-barred look at Oak Harbor through the eyes of visitors.”

He emphasized how important tourism could be to a city like Oak Harbor. Tourism generates $11 billion is the state each year, he said, with Island County being just the 18th biggest earner out of 36 counties in the state. While tourism spending increases by an average of 4.7 percent a year, in Island County it’s just 3.3 percent.

Yet tourism, he said, could be huge in the city. He argued that Oak Harbor, with its open waterfront and Cascade Mountain views, has a setting that is better than tourism giants like Whistler and Levinworth — which he worked with — but the community has a series of problems that keeps tourists at bay.

“You name the best tourism towns in Washington,” he said, “and your setting beats them all.”

Oak Harbor’s shortcomings

Brooks came up with a list of about three dozen tourism-related “shortcomings” in the city, coupled with a list of solutions. He started out discussing Oak Harbor and Whidbey Island’s “Internet presence,” which he said it vital since 68 percent of homes in the nation have Internet access, and of those, 94 percent use the Internet to create travel plans. “Internet presence” is a gauge of how easily a Web surfer can find information using common browsers like Yahoo and Google.

To test the city’s presence of the World Wide Web, Brooks had a team of average folks plan a trip to Whidbey Island over the Internet and give their impressions. The results were not impressive, he said.

Brooks spent a great deal of time panning the countywide marketing campaign which is funded by lodging taxes. The effort recently became controversial after the Oak Harbor City Council members voted to pull the city’s 2 percent funds from the campaign, which uses the slogan, “do nothing here.” One of the centerpieces of the marketing campaign is the Web site,

“It gets a zero for Internet presence,” Brooks said. “It’s flat-out not visible on the Internet.”

Heistad, who’s been directly involved in the “do nothing here” campaign, pointed out that Brooks submitted a proposal for the countywide marketing effort, but wasn’t picked by the committee.

“He made some good points,” she said, “but I also think there was a lot of sour grapes there.”

To fix the internet problem, Brooks suggested that the Chamber of Commerce could improve its site and then pay companies like Google a fee to be more visible.

Brooks also identified a series of other tourism-related problems within Oak Harbor, including confusing signs; lack of a coherent “theme” in the city; lack of interesting shops downtown; ugly-looking buildings and no architectural theme on Pioneer Way; a great beach-front park that doesn’t draw visitors.

Brooks’ suggestions included both minor and more major changes. He said, for example, that the name “City Beach Park” was “too municipal sounding” and should be changed to something more exciting, like Freedom Park or Paradise Beach Park.

Brooks said the city needs an overall theme. He said residents he’s spoken to suggested a patriotic, seaport or Dutch village. “If I had my druthers, it would be a seaport theme,” he said.

“Find your niche and promote it like crazy,” he added.

In addition, Brooks said Oak Harbor needs to sell itself as a “hub” in the midst of great attractions, like Deception Pass, Ebey’s Landing and even Coupeville.

“You must sell the whole package,” he said. “Oak Harbor has great diversions, but it doesn’t have the main attraction — yet.”

Brooks said he’s going to talk to owners of downtown building and try to get them to invest in their buildings. He also wants the property owners to encourage interesting and unique businesses to come into the area, even going so far as to drop rents for appropriate businesses.

He cited the Whidbey Wild Birds store as a “fabulous” example of the perfect store for the area, while he argued that attorneys and architects should move out of the area since they don’t attract shoppers.

“Shopping and dining in a pedestrian setting is the number one activity everywhere in the world,” he said.

Under the city’s contract with Brooks, he’s supposed to create a step-by-step tourism marketing and development plan, complete with funding solutions, and present it to the city council early next year.

“I’m going to push the council very, very hard to implement it,” he said.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or 675-6611.

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