Sign of the times

Taxpayers in Oak Harbor will soon be paying for a lighted billboard directing visitors to take a left on Fidalgo Island and visit the city.

Last week, the Oak Harbor City Council voted to spend general funds to pay for the oversized sign on Highway 20, to the tune of $500 a month plus $1,000 a year to change it out. Also, the council members decided to take control, from the Chamber of Commerce, of the design of the sign.

The city used to manage and pay for the billboard through the general fund until 2000, when city officials asked the Chamber to take responsibility for it. The Chamber received the funding for the billboard from the lodging tax, which is supposed to go toward tourism-related activities.

Finance Director Doug Merriman said the lodging tax committee, the group which makes recommendations for lodging tax grants, decided last year to only fund the billboard 50 percent because of the number of requests for money.

Merriman and council members spoke about the importance of the billboard and how it fits into Roger Brooks’ tourism plan. An average of 18,400 people pass the billboard each day.

Under the new contract, it will be switched each year and lighted at night.

The city administration recommended funding the billboard once again from the general fund, while still requesting that the Chamber manage it.

Councilman Paul Brewer was the only council member to express reservations about paying for the sign from taxpayers funds. He argued that the Chamber should step up and fund the sign.

“Once again we’re going to the reserve fund and I have a problem with that...” he said. “I think the Chamber should contribute to this.”

Since the city will be paying for it, Mayor Patty Cohen suggested that the city should have control over the design. The council members agreed.

Chamber Director Priscilla Heisted said she’s “totally open” to work with the city on the billboard and its design, though she stressed that the chamber is only involved as a favor to the city.

Heisted said it’s been surprisingly difficult to design the billboard because Oak Harbor doesn’t have a central focus or central image.

Previously, the billboard featured an oak leaf, which she said people had mixed opinions about. The current billboard had a image of Deception Pass, which obviously isn’t even in the city.

Heisted said she hopes Brooks’ tourism plan will create a memorable “central focus” in downtown Oak Harbor someday.

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