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Islanders divided about Chamber of Commerce’s tourism marketing plan

Amy Herbig of Blonde Ambition gave a presentation at the Land Trust Building last Tuesday night. - Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo
Amy Herbig of Blonde Ambition gave a presentation at the Land Trust Building last Tuesday night.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo

Several Islanders weighed in last week on plans by the Vashon-Maury Chamber of Commerce to market Vashon to off-Island tourists, with some suggesting the idea made enormous sense while others sounded a note of caution.

At a lively and sometimes emotional public forum last Tuesday at the Land Trust Building, Islanders raised concerns, asked questions about the project and expressed support.

The 90-minute discussion followed a one-hour presentation of the chamber’s plans by Amy Herbig, who heads the marketing firm overseeing the project.

“I moved here for the deer and trees and quiet,” one Islander said. “During the talk I heard a lot of commercialism, and I thought of the selling of Vashon. It occurred to me that maybe I’ll be moving.”

Paul Schuster, an Islander who said he grew up in Woodinville and had seen that town change as it worked to attract more tourists, also expressed concern.

“What you’re capitalizing on is quality of life,” he said. “You’re capitalizing on a shared resource, and usually when that happens it degrades the resource.”

“Tourism is already here, but we’re talking about raising it to an entirely different level,” added Islander Martin Koenig. “You want to sell our authenticity.”

Koenig compared Vashon to Martha’s Vineyard, Mendocino, Calif., Woodstock, N.Y., and the SoHo neighborhood of New York City — places he said he had seen hit a a “tipping point” in terms of tourism.

“I don’t presume we’re any smarter than people who lived in those places,” he said. “They resisted it, but you hit that tipping point and it’s a tidal wave and you can’t stop it.”

But other Islanders were optimistic that Vashon would not have to sacrifice its unique character in order to reap the economic benefits of tourism, adding that an economic boost is badly needed on Vashon, where some businesses are struggling.

Some also said that a carefully crafted marketing plan could support Vashon’s commercial life without ruining its overall quality of life.

“This is a long gain,” said Islander Frank Hein. “I don’t see this as a quick sale. We need to manage the change that is going to happen, so that during the next (economic) upturn we can handle it and preserve the things we moved here for.”

Jeff Hoyt, who works in radio, said the landscape of media has changed in recent years, enabling the chamber and its consultants to carry out a focused marketing effort rather than what he called a “shotgun” approach.

“You can be laser-focused as to who you’re going after,” he said. “It might be event-oriented, or promote camps on the Island. These people could come, and we wouldn’t even notice.”

Father Tryphon, abbot of All-Merciful Savior Orthodox Monastery, said he didn’t want to see the Island change but also noted the need to preserve Vashon businesses and jobs.

“I’m proud that I can take people to a world-class restaurant here,” he said, referring to The Hardware Store Restaurant. “I recommend stores and restaurants to people who are visiting here. By the same token, I don’t think we promote within our own community enough to support what we do have.”

“There is a way to bring a certain type of tourist here that won’t ‘Californicate’ this Island,” Tryphon added.

Melinda Sontgerath, a member of the chamber board and owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant, concurred.

“Everybody who has been involved in this initiative would be horrified to see Vashon turn into Leavenworth,” she said. “We want to attract the thoughtful tourist. We want people who appreciate the beauty of what we have here.”

The chamber, concerned that the Island no longer seems able to sustain its commercial sector, hired Herbig’s firm, Blonde Ambition, in June to undertake a strategic plan — the first part in a multi-phased tourism plan.

Tuesday’s forum was one of two the chamber held last week to let Islanders know what it’s considering and to garner feedback.

Herbig, whose small firm is located next to the marina in Burton, told the 40 or so Islanders gathered in the room that the goal “is not to create a Strawberry Festival every weekend.”

The hope, she said, is “to bring together the various Island businesses, groups and resources to create a cohesive image and message for Vashon — one the community can rally behind.”

Noting there was a time when Vashon considered tourism “a four-letter word,” Herbig added that the picture is now different on Vashon: “The Island is no longer financially supporting the community as it once did.”

“In February, when the businesses are hurting, would it be so bad if the four-way stop had a few more cars?” she asked.

The plan, she added, is “to create a plan ... and to see it all the way through.” The chamber’s goal, Herbig said, is to be “very open with the public ... even though (the plan) is not open to a public vote.”

But some, such as Koenig, questioned not only Herbig’s approach but also the format of the gathering, noting that it was billed as a community forum when it was largely a presentation by Herbig. Koenig suggested having another forum on the topic, chaired by a neutral facilitator.

“There are 4,500 families who live here,” he said. “If the Island is not included in this process, I think it will be a disaster.”

Others said the chamber should be addressing more fundamental issues. Bettie Edwards, who owns The Little House, urged the chamber to explore what she called its “bread and butter program” — finding ways to make sure Vashon businesses are attracting Island customers.

— Editor Leslie Brown contributed to this report.

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