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City adopts $32 million tourism plan

Exuberant Oak Harbor leaders marked what Councilman Richard Davis called a “historic moment” with cake, handshakes, cheering, clapping and a toast with glasses of water Thursday night.

Council members unanimously passed, in concept, tourism consultant Roger Brooks’ $32 million plan for revitalizing downtown Oak Harbor and the waterfront. Councilman Eric Gerber was absent.

Mayor Patty Cohen noted that the “electricity and energy” in the room was “pretty incredible.”

Brooks agreed. “You have 154 years in your history and you’re still making history,” he said, “and that is cool.”

If the plan is successful, as envisioned by the council members, it will both improve the economy by bringing in tourists and raise the quality of life for residents. If the city is able to overcome obstacles, such as the lack of guaranteed funding for most of the projects, residents may see major changes in downtown and the waterfront over the next five years or so.

Brooks, CEO of Olympia-based Destination Development, said the city’s commitment to, and adoption of, the plan sends a strong signal to developers that Oak Harbor is a good place to invest money.

Major features of the plan — officially called the Waterfront, Redevelopment, Branding and Marketing Program — include a special events center, an amphitheater, a boardwalk instead of sidewalks on Pioneer Way, angled parking on Pioneer Way, facade improvements, an expanded RV park, a giant playground and a water-view hotel.

After eating a celebratory cake, the council members followed up with a series of smaller-scale motions, all passed unanimously.

Downtown Oak Harbor is no longer “downtown.” It’s “Harbor-Side shops.” City Beach Park is now officially “Windjammer Park.” Oak Harbor and the Chamber of Commerce also have a new logo — a yellow and blue sail.

The council voted to move forward with building tourism-related kiosks to be placed around the community and putting up new signs in the city. A sign program has been designed by a Chamber of Commerce committee. The standardized program will include municipal signs and tourism-related signs with the new logo.

In addition, the council voted to hire a consultant, at the cost of about $40,000, to work with a new downtown merchant group to help them figure out exactly what to do and how to pay for it. Brooks recommended $4.3 million in improvements to the Pioneer Way area, to include street reconfiguration, boardwalk construction, facade improvement and beautification, and “signage and gateway improvement.”

Brooks said the city or downtown merchants need to hire an engineering firm to do a traffic study and determine what would be the best street configuration. He has said many times that angled parking, in contrast to the current parallel parking, is vital to making the area shopper-friendly.

Brooks said he’s researched how several different communities have revitalized their downtown areas and found that they use a wide variety of sources, including many different grants, low-interest loans and self-taxing schemes through business improvement districts.

“I could find any downtown redevelopment that used less than 10 different funding sources,” he said.

Brooks also offered to design business cards for city employees with the logo and a jazzy motto.

The council set up a new high-powered committee, called the Windjammers, to oversee implementation of the plan. They appointed Mayor Cohen and council members Sheilah Crider and Sue Karahalios.

Other members may include Development Services Director Steve Powers, City Administrator Thom Myers, Finance Director Doug Merriman, Chamber of Commerce Director Priscilla Heistad, Harbormaster Dave Williams, a member of the parks department, a downtown merchant, a county commissioner and a member of the Economic Development Council.

While there are still multi-million dollar holes in the budget and uncertain assumptions, the council has decided to take a cross-that-bridge-when-you-come-to-it attitude. Brooks said there are dozens of grants and other funding possibilities that the city may be able to obtain, but city leaders first need to get the projects moving the secure such funding.

Brooks’ proposed funding for a classy $9.4 million special events center on the waterfront depends largely on money from the county “.08” economic funds that come from sales taxes kicked back to the county by the state. The plan calls for Oak Harbor to receive $500,000 a year from the fund, which is administered by the county commissioners. The city currently generates about $250,000 of the .08 funds collected.

“I honestly, honestly believe this is a good deal for the county,” Brooks said. “It will generate a solid return on its dollars.”

Under the plan, the city will hire a program manager to actually implement the projects by finding grants and other funding sources, manage contracts, and keep track the budget. Brooks proposed that the city pay the person $60,000 for the remainder of 2005 and $90,000 for 2006.

Brooks urged the city to Council members to move forward quickly with hiring a program manager. The council asked Brooks to recommend people for the jobs.

Brooks pointed out that moving the sewage treatment plant out of the waterside park is not budgeted in the plan, though staff is currently studying the issue. He said moving the stinky plant is vital if a hotel is to be built nearby, though it’s not an overall “deal killer” for the plan.

Brooks said the city will get the final copy of the plan, with pretty pictures and all, by Monday.

Cohen said she wants the council members to have a ceremonial ground-breaking ceremony on the waterfront to kick-off the project.

“I think it’s a given the tremendous potential Oak Harbor has,” Brooks said.

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

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