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City halves tourism share

After a year of discussion, members of the Oak Harbor City Council decided Tuesday to follow Langley’s lead and halve its support of the county-wide tourism campaign from 2 to 1 percent. Each 1 percent generates about $33,500 a year.

The committee that manages the countywide campaign will likely fire Big Bang, the Seattle-based firm that created the sometimes-maligned marketing campaign, “Do nothing here.”

The other 1 percent will be held in a bank account earmarked for a plan that the city’s tourism consultant, Roger Brooks, will complete early next year.

Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Director Priscilla Heistad and Coupeville Town Councilman Marshall Bronson, both members of the countywide campaign committee, asked the City Council to continue to contribute, even if it’s at the lower 1 percent level.

“The second best option is to contribute 1 percent,” Heistad said. “It’s a nice second option, but to pull out altogether would be just a terrible thing to do. ... the entire program would fold.”

Yet Bronson somewhat contradicted Heistad, saying that the campaign is a “good program” that will continue with or without the city. “You will receive the benefit whether you pay or not,” he said, “but we hope that you will join us.”

Nobody, however, came to the defense of Big Bang. Heistad said their “do nothing here” slogan is “something people really hate with disdain.” She added that the committee will likely get rid of Big Bang, hire their own tourism director and “tweak” the do-nothing-here advertisement.

“It wasn’t the best end product, I think we can all agree with that,” Councilman Eric Gerber said of the campaign.

The council’s eventual decision to go along with the committee and continue giving 1 percent is against the advice of Brooks, who said during a workshop that the countywide campaign isn’t worth the money. He criticized the “do nothing here” slogan, the donothinghere.com Web site that’s difficult to find, the fact that the campaign includes far-away Camano Island, and the lack of a way to measure the effectiveness of the marketing.

Ironically, Brooks is the person who created the idea of the marketing campaign in the first place, when he was hired as a consultant to boost county tourism five years ago. Inn manager Randy Bradford pointed this out Tuesday, saying that the if the city is going to follow Brooks’ new advice, they should follow his old advice, too.

The council originally voted in the fall of 1999 to begin levying the “additional 2 percent hotel / motel tax” for the purpose of the campaign, which was joined by Island County, Coupeville and Langley.

But while the other entities each contributed 2 percent of lodging taxes to the effort, the Langley City Council chose to only contribute 1 percent and use the other 1 percent for public restrooms.

Several Oak Harbor residents and council members became upset last year when it became clear that Langley was never going to increase its contributions to an equitable 2 percent.

Also, a couple of council members questioned the effectiveness and quality of the campaign. Councilman Paul Brewer, for example, argued that Oak Harbor wasn’t represented proportionally in the advertising.

So late last year, the council voted to give a year’s notice that they wanted to pull out of the campaign, which was required by the terms of the contract. The city had to give a year’s notice to pull out before any changes could be renegotiated.

Over the last year, the council has had “numerous discussions with no real solutions” to the issue, City Administrator Thom Myers said. Various community members and officials have argued both sides of the issue. Yet Myers added that the city sent a letter in last month to Island County, Coupeville and Langley requesting their thoughts on the tourism promotion agreement, but didn’t get any response.

On the council, Richard Davis and Sue Karahalios were the biggest boosters of staying with the countywide marketing campaign. “This is my first time in my 20 years on the island that the entire island has worked together on anything,” Davis said.

As part of the council’s motion to contribute 1 percent, the council members agreed to re-visit the issue in a year.

At the same meeting, the council also approved three grants from the “basic 2 percent hotel / motel tax.”

Visitors who stay in Oak Harbor hotels and motels pay a total of 4 percent in lodging tax that the city uses to promote tourism. The first 2 percent, or basic 2 percent, largely goes to the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

Under an agreement with the city, the chamber receives about $52,000 a year from the tax. The remaining $15,000 in given out as grants by the council, as recommended by the city’s lodging tax advisory committee.

For the grant year 2005, the city council approved $7,000 for the Whidbey Island Marathon, $5,000 for the Whidbey Island Car Show and $3,000 to the chamber for the billboard on Highway 20 near Anacortes.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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