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Chamber looks to tourism to lift Vashon’s economy

Concerned that several businesses are “hanging on by a thread,” the Vashon-Maury Chamber of Commerce has hired an Island-based marketing firm to craft a broad-based plan to figure out how to bring more tourists to Vashon.

The firm, Blonde Ambition, was hired in June to craft the plan, the first coordinated effort in recent memory to devise strategies to market and promote Vashon to people who live off-Island, said Melinda Sontgerath, a member of the Chamber’s board of directors.

“We’ve just found, especially over the last two years, that businesses are struggling so much on the Island. We’ve lost some, and others are just hanging on by a thread,” said Sontgerath, who owns The Hardware Store Restaurant. “And we get feedback: Why isn’t the chamber doing something? Well, we’ve decided to do something.”

Blonde Ambition, headed by Amy Herbig, has already begun the work of crafting a strategic plan. The firm, working closely with Sontgerath and other chamber leaders, has pulled together a group of Islanders — dubbed Vashon Island Tourism Awareness Leaders or VITAL — to act as what Herbig calls the “board members of this effort.”

In May, the 13 people who make up VITAL — a group that includes jeweler Eric Heffelfinger, restaurant owner Marie Browne, real estate agent Linda Bianchi and chocolatier Barbara Stratton, among others — met for a full day to discuss the Island, its attributes, its competitors for tourism dollars and the kind of people the campaign will try to attract to Vashon. According to a 10-page summary of that meeting, their objective is to “create a cohesive image and message for Vashon” and to “brand Vashon Island as a day-trip or weekend getaway destination.”

Blonde Ambition expects to hold a community-wide meeting next month to give others an opportunity to weigh in on the effort. The firm also hopes to launch a “VITAL on Vashon blog,” Herbig said.

“It’s important to us to be open and transparent,” Herbig said, during an interview in her office next to the Quartermaster Marina.

“This Island has been talking about something of this nature for a while,” she added. “It’s time now to take action.”

The chamber hired Blonde Ambition to conduct phase one — crafting a strategic plan — for $7,000. The firm expects to complete the plan by Aug. 23, after which it will start phase two, a four-month effort to find the funds to execute the campaign, develop a new Web site and develop materials in support of the campaign. Phase three — a year-long launch of the plan — is expected to begin next January.

“Our goal is to tell Vashon’s story, through visuals, graphics, audibles and positioning,” Herbig said. “It’ll be a call to action to come to Vashon, to shop on Vashon.”

Natalie Sheard, owner of Café Luna and one of the members of VITAL, said the effort is essential to the Island’s economic health. It’ll help not only cafés like hers, but a number of businesses, she added; if she has more people coming to her cafe, she can employ more people, purchase more items at the Island’s hardware stores and add fuel to the Island’s economy, she said.

“We have an amazing Island here, but it’s sort of a hidden secret,” she said. “If we could let more people know about it, they might come here and spend a little money here.”

Karen du Four des Champ, owner of MiKo’s Guest House, agreed. She’s had many people come to her cabin on Beall Road and express surprise by what they find on the Island. “When people leave, they say, ‘Oh my gosh, I could have stayed so much longer.’ That tells me there’s something here for people, all kinds of people,” she said.

But as word of the effort has gotten out in recent weeks, some have questioned it, noting that some communities have become so overrun by tourists that year-round residents feel they have to leave during sunny, summertime weekends.

Some note that the ferry line to return to the Island on Friday afternoons already stretches on for nearly a mile and that the backup at the main intersections on the highway are tremendously long. Others say something ineffable could be lost if Vashon becomes a destination marketed throughout the region — a certain energy and quiet beauty that have made the place special for years.

“If you take what sustains you emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, aesthetically and turn it into a commodity, you’re done; you’re running a risk that can’t be made right,” said John Candy, who moved to Vashon 30 years ago.

“I think some tourism is good, but at a certain point it’s definitely damaging,” he added. “It’s a matter of scale.”

Others are concerned about the contract the chamber board signed with Blonde Ambition. Du Four des Champs, for instance, said the two-page contract is not very detailed and that the full extent of what is in store for the next two phases is unclear.

“It’s a pretty weak contract,” she said. “And it’s based on the premise that we as business owners, we as the community, we as the chamber, need to have ‘XYZ’ amount of money to implement this plan that we’re buying for $7,000. But when I ask Amy (Herbig) how much that is going to be, she never answered the question. She didn’t even give a ballpark.”

At a chamber board meeting last week, three members of the chamber — du Four des Champs, Bettie Edwards and Tom Bangasser — raised questions and concerns.

“Tourism is a hot topic on this Island,” said Bangasser, a businessman. “If this (effort) is premised on the notion that the Island is not sustainable and the solution is tourism, ... a lot of people will take issue with that.”

In the lively exchanged that followed, chamber board members told Bangasser that some industries — like the Island’s inns and B&Bs — are completely dependent on tourism and that economic growth is needed for the Island to thrive.

“Tourism allows for healthy growth,” Bianchi told Bangasser.

Songterath, in an interview after the board meeting, sounded a bit exasperated by the debate.

“We’re doing what a chamber does,” she noted.

“It’s about the Island,” she added. “What type of meaningful tourist trade can we attract here? What’s the right fit for Vashon? And that’s an important point and something we’ve already spent a lot of time on. We want the right fit.”

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