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Downtown Oak Harbor dilemma: Attracting shoppers proving to be a challenge

Briana Morales, Marion Deguzman and their son, Orion Deguzmen stroll around a somewhat vacant downtown Thursday.   - Photo by Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times
Briana Morales, Marion Deguzman and their son, Orion Deguzmen stroll around a somewhat vacant downtown Thursday.
— image credit: Photo by Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times

Recent business closures are putting a spotlight on the struggles some merchants say they are facing in Oak Harbor’s historic downtown.

During the past month, waterfront Mexican restaurant Mi Pueblo closed, Kakies Bakery shuttered its doors just over a year after opening them, Angelo’s Cafe closed, followed most recently by Cameron’s Cafe in the Old Town Mall.

“We’ve got a beautiful historic downtown district that’s been beautifully redone,” said Kathy Reed, executive director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

“I just think somehow we are missing the boat in terms of getting people in there who can pull business to them.”

LAST YEAR also saw the closure of Mike’s Mini Mart, Michael John’s Trading Post, the Armed Forces YMCA and Whidbey Furniture. Long-time tenant Island Drug relocated to property on Highway 20, and bayleaf closed its downtown Oak Harbor shop, focusing instead on its Coupeville location.

Business owners and community leaders said they assign blame to a variety of factors, among them the controversial decision to convert much of Pioneer Way into one-way street in 2011.

“For better or worse, the one-way is done,” Reed said. “But it’s a combination of things … you hear a lot of things. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

LES BENSE, owner of Oak Tree Antiques, is a longtime critic of the one-way project. Bense said his business decreased 40 percent since the construction began and never recovered.

“The one-way has just killed everybody,” Bense said. “Before the one-way, I was doing really well. Everybody’s struggling … the restaurants in particular.”

In addition to conversion to a one-way street, business owners also complain that Pioneer Way business employees are taking up valuable street parking and aren’t staying open according to their posted business hours.

Oak Harbor Tavern’s owner Kelly Beedle claimed in a letter to the city last year that the Pioneer Way construction, and the inadvertent discovery of Indian bones, resulted in business losses, and demanded $100,000 in compensation.

KRISTI JENSEN, who owns a large portion of real estate downtown, sent an email last summer to City Administrator Larry Cort complaining that downtown businesses don’t stay open long enough to attract customer traffic.

“This has been my biggest gripe of all time,” Jensen wrote. “Some of the shop owners cannot get it through their heads, we need people down there that need to make a living, not just playing around. The hours they are keeping only being open six to seven hours a day! No business can survive with those hours.”

The email was provided to the Whidbey News-Times as part of an open records request.

Jensen could not be reached for additional comment.

LONNIE SCHOPEN, owner of La Lonnie’s Notions gift shop, said she will close her business June 1. She agrees with those who complain about businesses not keeping regular hours to encourage repeat customers.

“It only takes once or twice and you’re done,” Schopen said.

Schopen said a combination of high rents along Pioneer with a marked decline in traffic in recent years has sounded the death knell for more than one business, including affecting her own.

Organizations like the Chamber and the Downtown Merchants Association have organized events and income-producing programs, but not all the businesses participate.

Schopen that the business community struggles to work together to improve conditions.

“This town doesn’t work well together,” Schopen said.

“It’s sad we can’t bring more to the community. There’s got to be a way to get the support for the local merchants.”

ISLAND COUNTY Com-misioner Jill Johnson, whose district includes Oak Harbor, and who served as the chamber’s executive director, said businesses are responsible for building their own clienteles.

“There are no victims in the business community,” Johnson said. “There are people who take advantage of opportunities and fight for every customer, and there are people who sit back and fail.

“That may be a tough statement, but it’s reality.”

On the other hand, it’s up to the community to support the businesses they want to see thrive, Johnson said.

“The community and consumers need to own their role in this as well,” Johnson said. “We aren’t owed a vibrant downtown, if we want one we have to fight for it. That means we need to make an effort to support the businesses we want to see succeed.”

“It’s not enough to say ‘I hope so-and-so makes it,’” Johnson said. “If you want them to make it you need to make an effort to spend some of your money there.”

While some business are departing downtown, there are new Pioneer Way businesses on the horizon, among them Hot Rock Pizza, which is moving into the space formerly occupied by Cameron’s Cafe.

Hot Rock owner Reid Schwartz said he believes his business model will succeed where others have failed.

“We have a really big following,” Schwartz said.

The business has been operating as a lunch truck for the last five years at special events and festivals.

“We have a business plan and a marketing plan to bring people down here,” Schwartz said.

Hot Rock Pizza was originally going to move into the space formerly occupied by Angelo’s Cafe.

“The deal just didn’t work out,” Schwartz said. “Then this popped up and we got lucky. We love this building, we love the architecture.”

In addition to regular marketing, Schwartz said he plans to be very active in the community and give back as a way to build a network of faithful customers.

A few other businesses, like Casual House and the Jewerly Gallery have survived for decades.

“We have been very blessed to have a loyal customer base,” said Gloria Carothers, owner of the Jewelry Gallery.

RON NELSON, director of the Island County Economic Development Council, said his gut feeling about why any businesses have failed is that the city simply hasn’t recovered yet from the recession.

“It’s slow,” Nelson said. “It’s a slow turnaround. They’ve bled so much money in that five years. The businesses are frustrated. When you’ve spent so many hours and you’re not getting people in, you get burnt out.”

The area’s reputation as a “ghost town” is probably not helping either, Nelson said.

“The perception is preceding the reality.”

 

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