Signs point to visitors, city hopes

It’s a sign of the times, perhaps, that the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce has spent nearly a year creating a program for consistent and attractive signs in the city.

City officials, business people and civic groups are focusing a variety of efforts on making Oak Harbor, particularly the waterfront and downtown, alluring to visitors. There’s general agreement that the key to creating a healthy economy in the city’s future is turning the few blocks of downtown and the waterfront into a popular tourist attraction.

Chamber members decided that one of the first steps should be fixing the city’s messed-up sign system so that visitors and local alike know, first of all, that things like Old Town shops and the City Beach Park exist; and second of all, how to get there.

Members of the Chamber of Commerce presented a preliminary draft of the “Signage Plan for Visitors to Oak Harbor’s Downtown and Waterfront” at a recent joint workshop last week with the Oak Harbor City Council and Mayor Patty Cohen.

“It isn’t just for visitors, it’s for the entire community,” said Marcia Van Dyke, a member of the Chamber’s downtown task force and publisher of the Whidbey News-Times. “It’s not just a signage plan, it’s a beautification plan.”

The plan contains an analysis of the existing signs in the city; recommendations for a hierarchy of signs; uniform design characteristics; and a plan for identification of key points of interest in the downtown and waterfront.

The chamber’s downtown task force has been working on the plan with the city’s senior planner, Rob Voigt, since early in the year. The group sought and received input on the plan from the general public, civil groups, hotel and motel managers, businesses and the city staff.

The effort, however, was somewhat confused a few months ago when the City Council hired Olympia-based consultant Roger Brooks to create a tourism development and marketing plan. In his presentation to the community, he spoke about the importance of signs in a community and discussed the many sign problems in Oak Harbor.

Members of the downtown task force didn’t know whether they should proceed with their sign plan if Brooks was going to duplicate their efforts. Also, Brooks suggested changing the names of downtown sites, such as renaming City Beach Park to to something more jazzy like “Freedom Park,” which would delay the process of making up new signs.

At the workshop, the council members encouraged the task force to move ahead and complete the finishing touches on the plan. Councilwoman Sue Karahalios said she hopes and presumes that Brooks will incorporate the task force’s sign plan into his tourism super-plan for Oak Harbor.

“If he’s not bright enough to pick up on that,” Karahalios said, speaking of Brooks, “then we as the people who sign his paycheck need to point that out to him.”

Councilman Paul Brewer, however, said the city should decide on a theme before moving ahead with a sign plan. Brooks is trying to develop an overall theme for the city, which he has suggested should be nautical.

Yet nobody disagreed that the sign scheme in Oak Harbor is currently a haphazard muddle. The problems the group found included inconsistent design, a lack of signs for important things (like public restrooms and City Beach Park), poor or haphazard placement of signs, and inconsistent installation (height of signs).

The result is that visitors — and new residents — often don’t know about attractions or can’t find them. Also, the plan states that the the ugliness and confusion of current signs makes the city seem like it lacks quality.

To fix the problems, the preliminary plan proposes design parameters for signs. Van Dyke said everyone the group spoke to favors using a logo featuring an oak tree near the beach. The oak logo is used by the Chamber of Commerce and is already on the two monument signs at the main entrances to the city.

To ease wayfinding, all of the directional visitor signs will feature the logo and the same palette of colors. The types of signs are divided into three types — directional, wayfinding and pedestrian. The signs will be placed at “key decision points,” the plan states, which are mainly intersections along visitor travel routes.

The task force recommended that Oak Harbor also change its municipal signs to a standardized set of signs that conform to the new plan. Also, the members said the state Department of Transportation may be willing to allow changes to signs on Highway 20 in order to coordinate with the plan.

While putting in new signs may be an expensive proposition, the chamber may be willing to help out.

“We might have a little bit of funding to help launch this plan,” Van Dyke said.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or 675-6611.

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