News

Downtown development eyed

‘Come ashore’

to Oak Harbor

It may not all be visible to the naked eye — yet — but things are changing in downtown Oak Harbor.

A developer plans to build a large development of retail, office and townhouses on a long-vacant lot on Pioneer Way. A group of downtown merchants helped create a $6.6 million “streetscape” design for Pioneer Way. A tourism Web site is being built. A committee picked a graphic design firm to create materials for kiosk, gateway signs and marketing material.

The city even has a new tag line: “Oak Harbor — Come Ashore.”

“It’s really a very exciting time,” said City Development Director Steve Powers. “A lot of the things this community has looked for and planned for over 20 years are finally being realized.”

It’s been 15 months since the Oak Harbor City Council adopted the Waterfront, Redevelopment, Branding and Marketing Program. Tourism consultant Roger Brooks created the master plan, which calls for $32 million in projects to redevelop and revitalize the city’s downtown and waterfront areas. Highlights include a special events center, an outdoor amphitheater, a water-view hotel, angled parking on Pioneer Way, and a pier. The city paid Brooks about $50,000 for the plan.

The consultant hired to actually implement the plan — commonly known as either the Windjammer or Roger Brooks plan — has made behind-the-scenes strides since beginning work more than five months ago. Tom Beckwith contracted with the city for $135,000 over 18 months.

City staff, downtown business people, the director of the Chamber of Commerce and others have also worked feverishly to continue the momentum.

“It’s going great,” said Oak Harbor Chamber Director Priscilla Heistad, who is a member of the Windjammer Committee. “The priorities are shifting, but I think it’s great we can react to things so quickly.”

Beckwith announced last week that he is pushing the proposed convention center to the top of his priority list because of changes in the real estate market.

The only possible fly in the ointment is money. City officials still haven’t identified funding sources for the larger projects, like a redesign of Pioneer Way or a convention center. But they have a new grant writing expert and the cooperative downtown business people on their side.

Heistad said her only disappointment is that the city’s new signs aren’t up. The bold signs, which would have helped direct visitors downtown, were supposed to be the first Windjammer project completed, but the city ran into trouble with the state Department of Transportation. Powers said the signs will have to be re-designed.

“We lost another tourist season,” Heistad said. “Signage is such a critical issue.”

The City Council seemed to spur business downtown simply by adopting the plan. The long-vacant storefronts are gone. New businesses are popping up all the time. Last week, Popsies — a popcorn and candy store — celebrated a grand opening. A famous local chef, excited by the city’s plans, is building a restaurant and retail center downtown.

Fred Flemming of a Bellingham-based corporation called Bayshore Development Company recently made application to build a 21,356 square-foot development on an empty 2.49 acres lot next to Mi Pueblo restaurant. The plans include retail shops, office space and two-story townhouses.

“It will do a great deal in terms of transforming downtown,” Flemming said.

City officials and business leaders have worked for years to encourage development of a different kind on the so-called Copeland / Beselin site. The 1990 Harbor Watch plan calls for a convention center and hotel on the site. The City Council even raised building height limits and agreed to move Bayshore Drive to allow waterfront development in order to lure a developer, but hotel companies didn’t feel plans were financially feasible.

In response to the proposed development, Beckwith rearranged his 18-month schedule to more ahead with a new design for Pioneer Way in order to guide the design of the new “anchor” development. He and Powers worked with a downtown merchants, a subcommittee of the Harborside Merchants Association.

“I can’t say enough about their energy and excitement,” Powers said about the group. “They are so exited about their downtown.”

Beckwith presented drawings of the Pioneer Way design at a Windjammer Committee meeting last Wednesday. The design is based on a downtown circulation study completed a few years ago. Under the plan, Pioneer Way will become a “serpentining” two-way road; parallel parking will be replaced with angle-in parking on one side of the street, alternating on different sides of the road each block. The design spans from City Beach Street to the Midway / Bayshore intersection.

The goal, Beckwith said, is to create a pedestrian environment. He said the group was inspired by the clean, subtly-nautical design of the transit station on Bayshore Drive.

It incorporates many innovative ideas. Power said intersections and a few “special spaces” will be slightly raised and built with a different material, such as bricks, in order to denote them as pedestrian areas. In some areas, curbs will be eliminated and instead fixtures, trees and landscape materials will divide the sidewalk from the street. It will create larger spaces that can be used for special events.

“It’s really about designing outdoor areas as a stage,” Power said. “It creates a lot of flexibility as to how we use Pioneer Way.”

Beckwith said he estimated the price tag of the improvements at $6.6 million, excluding water, sewer and storm drain costs. He suggested that owners of downtown property could pay for about $1.3 million of the project through an local improvement district, or LID.

Last Friday, a committee of business people met at City Hall to come up with a tag line for Oak Harbor. They were looking for a short, unique motto that can be used on promotional materials.

“Oak Harbor - Come Ashore” is meant advertise the city’s waterfront and evoke the nautical theme, Power said, but it is flexible enough to be “customized” for different messages.

Heistad pointed out that the City Council has yet to approve the tag line.

In the next two months, the city’s new tourism Web site should be up and running. Heistad is in the process of gathering information about all the tourism-related businesses in the area, which has turned out to be a really big job. She said the site doesn’t yet have a domain name, but she’s hoping for www.comeashore.com.

But once complete, Powers said the new Web site “may be the first visible thing for the community” of progress in the much-anticipated Windjammer Plan.

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

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