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Tourism bill: $31 million

Roger Brooks introduced a few additions and put a price tag Thursday night on his plans for turning the waterfront area of Oak Harbor into a tourist wonderland.

It will cost, he said, a little over $31 million, not including the vitally important costs for relocating the sewer treatment plant from the waterfront park, improving the marina and finding a new place to relocate the two City Beach ball fields. Also, Brooks said the city should pay somebody $90,000 a year to make sure the plan is implemented.

Brooks said $31 million may seem like a lot of money, but he urged residents to consider all they will receive from the investment. He said the dollar amount was actually small in comparison to what other communities are investing in themselves.

“We’re doing a heck of a lot,” he said, “and I guarantee you will see a tremendous return on your dollar.”

Brooks, the city’s $48,000 tourism consultant, identified ways to possibly find about $20 million, or about two-thirds of the cost, through grants, city park funds, money set aside for the defunct clock tower project, general funds, and creative borrowing against such revenue sources as lodging taxes and rural county sales taxes.

Brooks admitted that the easy part of his job was to dream up the projects to improve the waterfront and downtown area, but the difficult part is finding ways to pay for them. He also admitted that he has just two weeks to find the final $10 million in funding. On Feb. 8, Brooks is scheduled to present the council with recommendations for funding and timelines.

“I have to tell you I have not solved the $31 million...” he said. “I’m still scrambling.”

Brooks promised when he was hired that he would not ask the city council to raise taxes in order to implement the plan and he still contends he will not recommend that voters be asked pass a bond issue.

He did, however, very diplomatically “throw out the option” of a $10 million property tax bond. He said the City Council could ask the voters to pass a bond issue, raising property taxes to fund $10 million of the project. He said it would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $5 extra a month in taxes over 20 years.

“We’re not advocating bond issues,” he said in an interview Friday. “But somewhere along the line the community is going to have to participate (in the cost) because the community is the beneficiary of a $31 million project. Whether that means a bond issue or not, I’m not sure. We are exploring all options.”

In fact, Brooks said he would rather see the city pass a bond issue to put a new library in the old Pacific Northwest building on Pioneer Way. He said the building would make “an outstanding library” for just $5 million.

Based on the response of the 40 or so residents at the meeting, helping to foot the bill for the tourism plan may in fact be something the historically-frugal voters of Oak Harbor are willing to consider.

“We’ve got to start somewhere and this is a great start,” Tim Hazelo of Oak Harbor’s A-Plus Mortgage said afterward. “It will generate revenue down the road for everyone.”

Brooks, who is the CEO of Olympia-based Destination Development, started out the meeting by sharing some of the approximately 100 e-mail messages he’s received from residents in response to his preliminary plan. He said the input was largely optimistic and some people offered some good ideas he wants to incorporate into his plan.

“This is not a community divided or polarized,” he said. “Everyone benefits from this program.”

He said his proposed nautical theme and the new logo for the city — with simple sails — was very popular. His most controversial idea seems to be one-way streets downtown — making a loop out of Pioneer Way and Bayshore Drive — which he said he suggested as a way to fit angle parking into Pioneer Way. Again, he stressed the importance of angle-in parking to bring visitors, but he said he’s not going to recommend one-way streets in his plan. Instead, he said it will be up to the downtown business owners to decide what they want to do and go to the City Council for help.

Based on input, Brooks said he’ll make several modifications to his ambitious plan. He is considering adding a “rose garden like that of Balboa Park in San Diego”; a plaza area for weddings or special events; removal of the community clubhouse; buying a couple of trolleys to give free rides around the waterfront; and moving the A-6 Navy jet far away.

Brooks suggested that the city could swap land with the Freund family, which owns a large piece of land across from the current RV park on Beeksma Drive. He said the city could swap the land where the current ball fields sit for the Freund land, which could become the site of the expanded RV park. That would allow the Freund family to build a waterfront hotel on top of the ball fields.

Brooks stressed that the ball fields would have to be re-built elsewhere and that wetlands won’t be destroyed for the RV park.

In addition, Brooks proposed enhancing a playground area for children in the park by putting in a climbing wall, an interactive fountain and a lot more play equipment.

Brooks’ original plan, presented to the community Jan. 11, focused on City Beach Park, which he proposed renaming Regatta Beach. He suggested moving the two ball fields to build a public-private special events center and waterfront hotel connected through a walkway.

His ideas for the park include a grand entrance near a newly-landscaped, set-back Oak Harbor Motors; an expanded RV park relocated across Beeksma Drive; a larger swimming lagoon; an amphitheater; structures for vendors to rent kites, kayaks, etc.; and getting rid of the sewer treatment plant.

The last idea — taking the sewer plant out back and shooting it — earned a round of applause from the crowd Thursday.

Brooks also recommends a sign plan with the new nautical logo, installing boardwalks in place of sidewalks downtown, renaming Pioneer Way “Harbor Avenue,” and install visitor information kiosks.

One possible wrinkle in Brooks’ plan came from the owner of Oak Harbor Motors, whose cooperation is key to creating a aesthetically-pleasing entrance to the park at the Highway 20 / Pioneer Way / Beeksma Drive intersection. Mike Horrobin stood up at the end of the meeting and questioned “as private property owners ... what incentives do we have to do this with our properties?”

Brooks consoled Horrobin by saying the city doesn’t want to harm his business, but added that he would discuss the matter with him afterward.

Near the end of the meeting, Brooks spoke about how his firm has “bent over backwards” and asked that the City Council pay him $4,800 extra to cover the cost of design changes.

He said he still intends to complete the plan, with all the funding mechanisms in place, so that the City Council can adopt it on March 1.

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

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