Tourism program funding may be halved

The Oak Harbor City Council will consider a recommendation by its Lodging Tax Advisory Committee to decrease the city’s contribution to the Island County Joint Tourism program.

The proposal, to be heard at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting, suggests a fixed annual contribution of $20,000 in place of the 1 percent lodging tax Oak Harbor pays into the program. The change would reduce the city’s contribution by half.

“It’s a good recommendation,” said Jill Johnson, executive director of the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “It’s appropriate that Oak Harbor pays a proportional share.”

Oak Harbor actually has a 4 percent lodging tax, also known as the hotel / motel tax. Currently, 1 percent goes toward a program that promotes tourism on both Whidbey and Camano islands. The city’s contribution amounts to about $40,000 a year.

In comparison, Langley’s 1 percent contribution amounts to approximately $20,000 a year. Coupeville contributes 2 percent, that totaled nearly $13,000 in 2007, according to the Island County Joint Tourism Board treasurer’s report. Island County consistently forks over the most substantial amount of funds.

Discussions within the city of Oak Harbor about the best use for its tourism promotion funds spurred this most recent proposal to limit contributions to the Island County-wide tourism effort. Instead, officials want to provide greater financial support for local promotions, such as new banners to welcome out-of-town guests, or to improve existing events such as the Whidbey Marathon.

“Proportionally, we were paying double and we just weren’t seeing double results,” Johnson said of the tourism support in Oak Harbor. “It’s hard not to have higher expectations when you’re putting in double the money.”

The Lodging Tax Advisory Committee and Governmental Services Standing Committee reached the consensus that Oak Harbor’s contribution to the Island County Joint Tourism effort need not be any more than that of Langley, according to the agenda bill.

Island County, Oak Harbor, Langley and Coupeville agreed to an inter-local tourism promotion agreement, meaning that any changes to the agreement must be reviewed by all contract members. If Island County, Langley and Coupeville officials deny Oak Harbor’s request to pay a flat annual fee in place of the 1 percent lodging tax, the proposal recommends that Oak Harbor no longer partake in the tourism promotion contract.

The agreement has been controversial since the beginning. The cities of Oak Harbor and Langley, the town of Coupeville and Island County adopted the original Island County Joint Tourism agreement in September 2000. The initial contract called for each party to enforce a 2 percent tax on area lodging.

But Langley cut its contribution to 1 percent in 2003 to fund construction of public restrooms, which upset Oak Harbor officials. Many folks in Oak Harbor also felt that the advertising campaign worked better for the more rural parts of the county, and didn’t like the original campaign slogan, “Do nothing here.”

In 2005, Oak Harbor cut the city’s support to 1 percent. Eventually the campaign slogan was dropped, the advertising agency was fired and a marketing coordinator was hired to create a Whidbey and Camano islands “brand.”

Still, Oak Harbor officials and committee members are concerned about the program, arguing that it’s disproportionately focused on areas outside of Oak Harbor.

“The reality is, we need to focus our resources toward promoting local tourism, to get out the right message and welcome out-of-town visitors,” Johnson said of the need to decrease Oak Harbor’s contribution to the Island County Joint Tourism program.

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