Future Development of Oak Harbor
The following is an excerpt from the Oak Harbor Waterfront Redevelopment,
Branding & Marketing Plan. For full details on this project and others,
view the City of Oak Harbor Development Services Documents.
NAS Whidbey is the largest economic force on north Whidbey Island. As such, the community has seen the need for a greater diversification of the economy, and increasing tourism spending is one means to help accomplish this.
The tourism industry, by importing cash to a community, provides the opportunity for a variety of employment, small businesses, and entrepreneurs. The wages paid to these travel industry workers becomes part of the economy of the community when they, in turn, spend their wages on rent, food, clothing, gas, etc.
As an economic development diversification strategy, tourism contributes greatly to a healthy local economy and quality of life for the residents of a community.
The original commercial center of Oak Harbor still contains many historic turn-of-the-century buildings, and the area between downtown and the harbor includes a waterfront park and marina. However, as the population has grown over the years, much of the commercial and retail growth has occurred along Highway 20, effectively pulling people away from the old downtown. The community has long seen the need to revitalize the downtown, preserving its heritage and turning it into a focal point for both the community and visitors to shop, gather, enjoy the arts and outdoor activities, and appreciate the spectacular setting that is Oak Harbor.
To achieve the goal of increasing visitor spending to enhance the quality of life and economic vitality of Oak Harbor, the Oak Harbor Mayor, City Council, and Administrator saw the need for an action plan which would address both product development and marketing. Destination Development, Inc. was selected for the project.
This Oak Harbor Waterfront & Downtown Redevelopment, Branding and Marketing Program, which began as a tourism development plan, is the key to Oak Harbor’s success in further developing the tourism industry, and in recruiting non-tourism businesses to the city.
The heart of Oak Harbor revolves around its waterfront - from Freund Marsh stretching all the way around the bay to the Oak Harbor Marina. The projects detailed in this plan include further development of Freund Marsh, the waterfront trail system, redevelopment of City Beach Park, major downtown revitalization projects, and the development of a special events center - a facility that the entire island is sorely missing.
These projects total $32 million: The event center will cost approximately $10 million, City Beach and Flintstone Park redevelopment (from the marina to Freund Marsh) will cost approximately $10 million, the Pier project $6.2 million, downtown revitalization projects $4.3 million, and Freund Marsh trails and interpretive center $1.7 million.
The projects would be funded through a variety of sources including local, state and federal grants, in-kind services, foundation funding sources, city general fund revenues, lodging tax receipts, low-interest loans, and through the formation of public private partnerships.
Implementation of the plan will take approximately seven years to accomplish, but will dramatically enhance Oak Harbor’s lackluster image, and will spur redevelopment and revitalization in other areas of Oak Harbor.
This program includes the following recommendations:
- Hiring assistance to implement this plan. This is a huge undertaking and will require additional support for city staff. We recommend this be done through the hiring of contracted services, as opposed to hiring additional city staff.
- Branding: To develop and foster a maritime/nautical theme in the brand identity (logo), downtown revitalization facade and streetscape design, decorative wayfinding signage, visitor information kiosks, and in the marketing materials and website development.
- In the short-term, the City, working with the Chamber of Commerce, would focus on marketing Oak Harbor as the “hub for the Whidbey Island experience.” Oak Harbor would be marketed as the place to stay, eat and shop, with day trips promoted to Deception Pass, Ebey’s Landing, Greenbank Farms, Langley, Coupeville, Fort Casey, etc.
- Implementation of a decorative wayfinding signage system to identify attractions, amenities, and services.
- To develop a Special Events Center that will bridge City Beach Park with the core downtown area.
- To recruit private investment to downtown Oak Harbor. Specifically, this would include an RV park developer, hotel developer (perhaps a public/private partnership with the Event Center), additional mixed-use retail/office/condo development in downtown, and reinvestment in existing downtown buildings.
- To form a Business Improvement District or Association and funding solutions for downtown revitalization efforts, including funding options from the building/business owners downtown.
- Redevelopment of City Beach Park (changed to Windjammer Park) into a first-class waterfront park that will include a redesigned and larger lagoon and beach areas (Spinnaker Lagoon), expanded and longer promenade, visitor information kiosks, interpretive and historical displays (Historical Trail, Walk of Honor), an amphitheater, a plaza area for special events (Celebration Gardens), expanded lawn-based exhibition area (Scuttlebutt Park), a family play area (Knockabout Park), relocation of the existing RV park, A-6 aircraft, and the sewer treatment facility, and the addition of concession spaces for activity-based rentals (canoes, kayaks, bicycles, strollers) and sales (kites, treats, sundries, etc.).
- A newly developed upscale RV park.
- Continued development and fund-raising for the pier project, a major connection between the water, the marina and downtown Oak Harbor.
- As these new capital projects come on-line, the marketing effort, while still promoting all of Whidbey Island, will begin to focus on making Oak Harbor the destination for reunions, meetings, events produced by outside organizations, conferences and conventions, trade shows, and as a great shopping, dining and entertainment destination.
The following outlines what happens first, and by whom:
Management of the Program
After the plan is adopted, the first order of business will be to secure professional services to assist in implementing the plan. This is a huge job, and city staff, with already full plates, does not have the additional hours available to manage this project. We recommend that professional services be secured to work with staff and council on implementation. Work will include:
- Writing and applying for grants: local county funding, state, and federal sources (a full-time job in itself.)
- Writing and advertising RFPs and RFQs for professional marketing, architectural, engineering and other services.
- Working with the “Waterfront Redevelopment Committee” or WRC on a monthly basis as the advisory committee to the City Council and staff.
- Managing the selection process, entering into contract negotiations, terms and conditions, with a variety of vendors and consulting services.
- Working with the Finance Department regarding funding and budget issues on a monthly and annual basis.
- Managing and working with a variety of state and federal agencies regarding permitting and development issues.
- Managing consultants, planning professionals, and contractors throughout the process, including follow-up on deliverables and timelines.
- Meeting with local sub-committees (marina, pier, marketing, downtown, etc.) acting as a liaison between organizations, the city, and local citizens.
This person or firm should be multidisciplinary with expertise in project management, marketing, branding, theme development, public facilitation, grant writing, and possess expertise in negotiating and securing public/private partnerships.
Marketing, Branding & Signage
While the city concentrates on capital improvements (product development), the Chamber of Commerce would be charged with marketing Oak Harbor as the hub of activity for Whidbey Island visitors. There are a number of projects the chamber is charged with in this plan including development of a new tourism website, creation of an Activities Guide, press kit and public relations program, development of a professional photo library, managing and updating kiosks, distribution of marketing materials, billboard and other outdoor advertising, managing visitor information centers, etc. The chamber, working with the City, will also implement the wayfinding signage program detailed herein. The signage program should be one of the first elements of the plan implemented.
These programs are being funded from lodging tax revenues, which by state law is to be used for the promotion and development of tourism.
Major Capital Projects
The top economic development tool for Whidbey Island’s tourism industry is the development of a Special Events Center. This facility, approximately 45,000 square feet, would fill a huge gap by attracting large groups to the island as well as providing a venue for entertainment, art shows, trade shows, exhibitions, banquets and local organizational meetings, and reunions. The Center would become the missing “anchor” for the downtown revitalization effort, and it will spur additional investment in downtown Oak Harbor.
Capital projects include extending the trail system from the marina to Freund Marsh, development of historical and environmental displays, enhanced family play areas, and total redevelopment of City Beach Park.
This is an aggressive program that will take a concerted effort and dedication to implement. Funding will likely come from dozens of different sources, and will require some creating thinking and financing. A dedicated effort for a number of years will be needed in order to achieve success. Oak Harbor, with its stunning setting, can become a model for communities around the country looking to breathe new life in their downtowns and park systems.