City’s partnership with Oak Harbor chamber has worked for 54 years | Sound Off

Editor’s note: The following Sound Off was submitted by Kathy Reed, executive director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce:


As I participated in a community round table recently at an Oak Harbor City Council workshop, I was pleased and encouraged to hear one person after another refer to the fact “the chamber already does that,” and “the first place people call to learn about a community is the chamber.”

That’s why it baffles me that, after being an integral part of this community for 54 years, the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce is so misunderstood by so many people — specifically Mayor Scott Dudley.

In the Aug. 21 Whidbey News-Times article, “City Council to examine chamber funding,” Dudley said he wants to re-examine the amount of funding the city gives to the chamber.

In another article Saturday, “Mayor says chamber funding review ‘politically driven,’” the mayor said he would like to see the money the city gives to the chamber used for more public events. The first story spurred several comments about the job the chamber does with citizens’ tax money and the latest story makes it clear the mayor is operating under several misconceptions.

First, many people may not know that the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce is a private, nonprofit organization that receives no sales or property tax dollars from the City of Oak Harbor. The chamber receives a portion of the city’s allotment of the state’s 2 percent hotel/motel tax, money set aside for tourism.

Second, and most troubling to me, the mayor is saying is that the City of Oak Harbor doesn’t get a good return on its investment in the chamber.

Let me explain why he is wrong.

The chamber of commerce has a contract with the City of Oak Harbor for 2013 for the “maintenance and operation of tourist information facility.” This is the first single-year contract the chamber has had in recent memory. Previous contracts  were for multiple years and for more money.

Of the contracted amount for 2013, $72,000 — which is just 45 percent of the city’s $160,000 allotment — more than 97 percent is used for the annual operating costs of the Visitor Information Center, which leaves us less than $2,000 to promote tourist activities and events.

This reflects a funding cut of $8,000 from the previous contract.

We also received a separate grant from the city for $4,200 for tourism advertising.

The wonderful thing about the partnerships many cities form with their local chambers is that it gives everyone more bang for their buck. The city’s 50 cents and the chamber’s 50 cents, when combined, make a dollar, so actually we split the cost for running our Visitor Information Center down the middle. Those costs include the mortgage on the building, rent for the property — owned by the school district — utilities, facility maintenance and upkeep, postage for information and relocation packages mailed to interested parties, copier costs, and staff time for our VIC manager. This partnership doubles the city’s investment and makes each dollar go further.

What’s not included in those costs, and what the city also gets, is: the time the rest of my staff and I devote to tourism and tourism promotion — about half of our hours;  two well-attended events, Holland Happening and the 4th OH July, for which we raise 100 percent of the funds needed to purchase the fireworks; assistance with other community events such as the Military Appreciation Picnic; and a convenient location that’s easy for visitors to find and use.

The Oak Harbor Chamber answers hundreds of phone calls each year from people all over the country and assists thousands of local residents and tourists in the Visitor’s Center each year. We provide tourist information for Oak Harbor and other Whidbey Island communities to thousands of visitors at the “Whidbey on Wheels” Wagon, which is located at the Deception Pass Bridge parking area.

Even a small cut in the funding from the city would mean a loss of services to local residents and visitors who use the chamber each year.

The mayor believes the chamber needs to do more events. As it is, the city doesn’t pay for Holland Happening or the 4th OH July. Our members and event fees do.

None of the city’s money is used to put on any chamber events. The city provides much-needed, and greatly appreciated support from police, fire and other services during these events, but none of the city’s money is used to actually plan and carry out these functions. The chamber solicits funds from its membership and charges nominal fees to put them on.

Cutting the chamber’s funding means cutting events, not adding more. It means one or more of my staff loses a job, further reducing our capacity to support and staff events.

Depending on how much is cut from the chamber’s funding, the operating hours for the Visitor Information Center would be affected. We added hours for the summer months to accommodate a growing number of tourists. If we lose funding, the center could potentially close, meaning the chamber would simply concentrate on member programs and activities rather than tourism information and promotion.

While the idea of shifting funds from the chamber to an event planner for the city may seem like a good one to the mayor, the city would also have to pick up the costs of running an information center on top of the salary and benefits for a paid employee, who would still have to solicit funds to put on activities.

City staff will be required to do what the chamber does every day: tend to visitors, pass out brochures, give directions, partner with other organizations for special event sign-ups, take dozens of phone calls and prepare relocation and information packets for mailing.

How much is that going to cost the city?

Think it through; there is a reason cities and chambers all over the country join forces. It’s because both sides recognize you can get more done together than alone. Cutting chamber funding won’t save the city money. It will cost the city, and ultimately the taxpayers, more.

The reason this year’s chamber contract was reduced to a year was because the city council hoped the mayor would be able to strike a working relationship with the chamber and its new director. I met with the mayor on multiple occasions and told him I look forward to making the partnership between the city and the chamber better than ever. The chamber has demonstrated its willingness and ability to partner with others to put on great events.

The only person turning chamber funding into a political issue is the mayor.

The chamber has had a wonderful partnership with the city for 54 years. Sometimes business is done the same way year after year for a very good reason, because it works.

This is not an us-versus-them issue. We should all be in this together.


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