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Oak Harbor mayor says chamber funding review ‘politically driven’

The Oak Harbor City Council’s early review of chamber of commerce funding is “absolutely politically driven,” Mayor Scott Dudley said Thursday.

While the $72,000-a-year contract is usually renewed in December, Dudley said he thinks the council moved the decision to its Sept. 17 meeting to ensure the funding is approved before the Nov. 5 election.

“The council is extremely supportive of the chamber,” Dudley said. “But some are concerned we may see a change in council members.”

Four of the council’s seven seats are up for election in November.

ALL OF members of the Oak Harbor City Council who were present voiced their support for the chamber during their regular meeting Sept. 3. Council members said they want to see funding for the chamber continue despite Dudley’s insistence that there are better ways to use the money to spur the local economy.

“No one is denying the chamber’s doing a good job for existing members,” Dudley said. “But what’s the best bang for the buck?”

“I will always be asking, can we do more? Be more efficient?”

THE ISSUE of chamber funding was raised last month by Councilman Rick Almberg. He suggested the council move up discussions and develop a message that will appeal to Navy families relocating here with new squadrons at Whidbey Island Navy Air Station.

In terms of tourism, Almberg said, attracting and retaining Navy families should be a top priority.

“If we don’t go after the low-hanging fruit, the easy stuff first, everything else we do is just an abstract effect,” Almberg said.

COUNCILMAN Joel Servatius said he’s a proponent of the chamber and is happy to see the contract discussion come up sooner rather than the usual December deadline.

“There aren’t too many organizations that would want to run waiting until that last hour to get their budget finalized,” Servatius said. “I’m a proponent of doing something sooner rather than later.

“I can’t see that we would be diminishing that budget at all, but if anything, possibly increasing it.”

Councilman Bob Severns, who served three times on the chamber board of directors, agreed with Almberg that the city needs to get ready for the expected growth of the city.

“I think what we need to do is not only continue our partnership with the chamber, but to grow it.”

DURING RECENT work sessions to discuss the tourism needs of the city, Councilwoman Tara Hizon said she hears the chamber mentioned repeatedly as a “portal” for the community.

“One of the things that amazes me is that the chamber is able to do as much as they are with what they have,” Hizon said. “If we decide to add a military-targeted marketing plan to your work load, I think it’s important that the contracts be made more long term so you know one year to the next what your budget is going to be.

OAK HARBOR Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kathy Reed said it was nice to see support for the chamber from the council. Reed said she hopes that her Sept. 17 presentation on the chamber will further convince elected leaders that the chamber’s services are “a heck of a deal.”

“The meeting was good, it clearly showed most of our council understands what the chamber’s job is for tourism,” Reed said. “We are trying to find a good balance of doing events and serving our membership.”

CITY FUNDS RECEIVED by the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce are raised via a 2 percent tax on local hotel and motel rentals.

The money is intended by the state to be used specifically for tourism, according to Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting to clarify the point.

Johnson is Reed’s predecessor as chamber executive director.

“I decided to come because I saw some comments on the newspaper (website), about the funding source related to the 2 percent lodging tax,” said Johnson. “I wanted to clarify with the council that they are, in fact, ‘pass-through’ dollars from the state of Washington. It is not from the general fund.”

This lodging tax comprises roughly half of the chamber’s budget, the rest of which is funded by chamber members.

AT THE request of the mayor, city staff provided data from other similarly sized cities to determine how much of the 2 percent lodging tax funding they provide to their chambers.

Results yielded lodging tax contributions ranging from $12,500 to $376,925 annually. The Mount Vernon chamber receives $90,000 per year, and the Anacortes Chamber receives $67,200.

For the next meeting, Councilwoman Beth Munns said she wants to see similar information from Burlington and Port Townsend, communities also located along the Cascade Loop.

THE OAK HARBOR chamber’s focus should be on supporting and encouraging local businesses and not on producing too many events, Munns said.

“I would hate to see us just want our chamber to become just an events organization,” Munns said. “I’m not convinced events bring in the money.”

“The chamber is concerned with the commerce of the city and all of the businesses.”

Despite the apparent council support for chamber funding, Dudley said he wants to see the money go to more public events, which he believes will best improve the local economy.

“It’s not how we’ve done business in the past, because that’s how we’ve always done it,” Dudley said.

“It’s how we can do things better.”

 

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