With the city of Oak Harbor being Whidbey Island’s biggest economic beneficiary when it comes to tourism, stakeholders in the industry are asking the city to foot more of the bill for tourism-related marketing and promotion.
Sherrye Wyatt, the public relations manager for Embrace Whidbey and Camano Islands, gave a presentation to the Oak Harbor City Council during a workshop meeting July 26 asking the officials to consider increasing the amount of funds the city gives annually to the county-wide tourism marketing organization.
Council members said that while they recognize the need for Oak Harbor to pay its fair share, they were hesitant to grant the organization’s request outright.
Wyatt shared during her presentation that 44% of visitor spending in Island County is done in Oak Harbor. Total visitor spending in 2022 was $301 million, meaning $132 million was spent in Oak Harbor.
But the city gave less money to Embrace Whidbey and Camano Islands than the other smaller municipalities on the island. Oak Harbor gave the organization $20,000 out of a total $780,000 donated by Whidbey municipalities and unincorporated Island County, or around 2.5%.
“We just are really eager to keep you as a partner,” Wyatt said. “We’d like to see you back at partnership level that makes sense.”
In 2000, the year after the city instigated its 2% lodging tax, it voted to give the entire 2% to the Island County Joint Tourism Fund in an interlocal agreement with the county, the town of Coupeville and the city of Langley. Five years later, Oak Harbor reduced its contribution to half of the 2% lodging tax, or 1%.
In 2009, the city reduced its contribution again to a flat $20,000 annually. To receive funds over that amount, the joint tourism advisory board had to apply for a city Lodging Tax Advisory Committee grant.
Finance and performance analyst Chas Webster told council members that the tourism board requests that the city return to an annual 1% contribution.
“Today’s question to consider — is the current $20,000 contribution commensurate with the work products benefiting the city provided by Island County Joint Tourism?” Webster said.
According to City Administrator Blaine Oborn, next year’s 1% rate is estimated to be around $87,000.
Wyatt added that the flat contribution has not kept pace with inflation. She said the joint tourism board is seeking to reinstate the original intent of the agreement, which is to fund a county-wide effort.
“I think there’s more you could do to be at the table,” she said.
Councilmember Bryan Stucky said that while he believes the city should contribute more than $20,000 to the joint tourism fund, he would prefer that Embrace Whidbey and Camano Islands go through the grant application process because it gives the city greater control over how the money is spent than simply cutting the organization a check with few stipulations.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking them to go through the process like everybody else,” he said.
Stucky also noted that other organizations that promote tourism locally would take a hit, since there would be fewer grant funds they could apply for through the city.
Council members suggested compromises to Wyatt’s proposal. Councilmember Beth Munns suggested that the city could increase its contribution to $30,000, and the joint tourism board could apply for a grant if it needed additional funds for a special project. Councilmember Shane Hoffmire proposed increasing the city’s contribution to 0.6%, or around a quarter of the 2% lodging tax revenue.
The council did not take any action on this issue at the meeting.
Wyatt wrote in an email that as of June 30, lodging tax collections were down 16% countywide compared to the same time last year.
She said there are many factors contributing to this decrease, including the economy and a general increase in international travel as pandemic restrictions lift.