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Tourism plan budget questioned

Roger Brooks, Oak Harbor’s tourism consultant, left the City Council and administration with as many questions as answers during a presentation on his $32 million plan Tuesday night.

Brooks, who’s earning as much as $52,000 for the effort, was supposed to lay out the funding sources for his proposed projects, which include a 45,000-square-foot special events center, the municipal pier and a redeveloped waterfront park.

But afterward, even some of Brooks’ biggest supporters admitted there were holes in his budget, unanswered questions and shaky assumptions. But the problem may have been that Brooks’ presentation ran long — past the legally advertised time — and Mayor Patty Cohen cut him off so that furniture could be moved for the regular council meeting.

“The council and mayor legitimately have a lot of questions to ask,” said City Administrator Thom Myers. “We’re just starting to take a solid look at his budget. ... We are going to look at the likelihood of these funding sources. There’s a lot of work to do.”

Specifically, Brooks did not show funding in his budget for $6 million of the $9.7 million waterfront beach project, $4.3 million for improvements along Pioneer Way, $6.6 million for the pier, or $1.7 million for trails and an interpretive center at the Freund Marsh.

Brooks claims funding list

In an interview Friday, however, Brooks said he has in fact found a variety of possible funding solutions for improvements to downtown, which includes street reconfiguration, installation of a boardwalk, new building facades and general beautification.

He said he has a list of 17 possible grants and low-interest loans that the city should try to obtain, though there was no mention of them in his budget document.

Brooks said he was upset that he only had an hour and 15 minutes to present his budget, which is why it seemed to have holes.

“We flat out should not be discussing a $32 million project in an hour,” he said. “My biggest disappointment was that I never got to discuss the downtown. I was only two-thirds of the way through the budget when I was cut off.”

Nevertheless, Brooks admits that he’s had trouble financing the waterfront beach project, which includes an expanded lagoon, an amphitheater, a giant play area for kids and a “Walk of Honor.”

“City Beach Park isn’t the top priority,” he said, adding that the project may have to be put off for five to 10 years.

While Brooks previously promised that his plan would not require a public vote to raise taxes, he nevertheless suggested — “only an option” — in his budget document that the city “consider a public vote for $12 million bond issue that would build the pier” and fund the remaining $6 million for the park projects. Of course, $12 million wouldn’t cover those projects.

Under questioning Tuesday, Brooks agreed that his “expertise is not public finance.”

On the bright side, most people are still optimistic about his plans. They said Brooks’ proposed budget may give city leaders a direction to begin the work of turning downtown Oak Harbor and the waterfront into a lure for both visitors and locals.

“The nice thing,” Myers said, “is that he’s given us a time schedule, a project list and project cost estimates.”

Developers show interest

Also, Brooks said implementing the entire plan would encourage investment and bring in nearly $40 million in new tax base. He said three hotel developers, after hearing he was involved in developing Oak Harbor, have called him about building downtown and two already have options on land.

To pay for the special events center, Brooks suggests that the city request 0.08 funds — sales tax earmarked for economic development — from the Island County commissioners, who administer the fund.

Brooks wants the city to receive $500,00 for three years, starting 2006, and $400,000 a year for at least the 17 years after that.

This would mean that Oak Harbor would get most of the fund, which is meant for the entire county. The sales tax currently generates $500,000 a year, about 40 percent from Oak Harbor. But Brooks pointed out that an accumulated, non-earmarked $1 million in the fund next year can be used for other projects in the county.

Mayor Patty Cohen, however, said the city has already requested some of the money for infrastructure improvements in the Goldie Road enterprise area.

In addition to the 0.08 funds, Brooks said the balance of $2.9 million in downtown improvements could be paid for with a new federal program called the New Markets Tax Credit program.

He said it’s meant to drive new development in depressed areas; both the site for the proposed new library, which failed in the levy vote, and the Copeland / Beselin sites qualify. A hotel developer and the city would split the estimated $3.76 million in tax credits, he said.

Brooks used the total 4 percent lodging tax, which currently brings in $150,000 a year, to fund a variety of marketing and advertising programs, as well as the city’s new sign program.

Under his proposal, the Chamber of Commerce would still receive lodging taxes, which would be increased if the Chamber agrees to manage a convention and visitors bureau to bring groups to the convention center.

Brooks proposed using $180,000 that the city has stashed away for a downtown clock tower to instead build to build nautical-style kiosks for visitors, as well as an event center concept plan and gateway sign for the park.

General fund coffers tapped

In the budget, Brooks includes more than $300,000 a year — nearly $400,000 in 2008 — straight from city coffers, the general reserve fund.

The money would be used to make $300,000 annual payments on a $4 million loan to remodel the waterfront park (which costs a total of $9.7 million), as well as pay for a project manager, a contract manager, a convention center recruiter and printing of a community profile.

“Hopefully it’s not too much over what you are already spending,” Brooks said.

Afterward, Myers said the city has only $100,000 in the budget for capital improvements to the park.

“We might be able to find $380,000,” he said, “but that might mean across-the-board cuts in police and fire. These are some of the critical choices that need to be laid out.”

Brooks wrote that he did not find funding for the Freund Marsh project, but it will qualify for funding from a variety of agencies since it is an environmental project.

Brooks said the biggest wrench thrown into his budget was the lack of taxing capacity in the downtown area, which means a business improvement district is impractical.

Under a business improvement district, a percentage of property taxes on properties is set aside for improvements. It’s the most common way downtown areas are revitalized.

The problem is that the assessed value of the properties on Pioneer Way, from City Beach Street to Midway, is only $15 million.

“It’s the most shocking thing that I’ve found out in 25 years of being in this industry,” he said.

Myers said city staff, particularly Finance Director Doug Merriman, are going to analyze Brooks’ numbers and present their thoughts to the City Council during a workshop on the plan Tuesday, March 8, 6 p.m., in City Council chambers. Brooks will not be there.

The City Council will meet with Brooks again during a workshop Thursday, March 24, 6 p.m., in City Council chambers.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynews

times.com or 675-6611.

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