Islanders voice passion in debate about tourism on Vashon

More than 50 Islanders gathered last Wednesday to vet the issue of tourism on Vashon, asserting, sometimes hotly, their feelings about the contentious issue.

In a lively back-and-forth at Courthouse Square, some said they believed tourism is a boost Vashon’s economy needs, while others contended tourism may fundamentally change the Island’s personality.

All seemed to be in agreement about one thing, though: Tourism could affect Vashon’s culture and economy, for better or for worse.

The event, sponsored by the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, was held after a September town hall put on by the council identified tourism as a hot-button issue for Islanders, said Hilary Emmer, a community council executive board member.

The issue has been in the public eye for the past several months, after the Vashon Chamber of Commerce announced that it had hired Blonde Ambition, a Vashon marketing firm, to help the chamber put together a marketing plan to try to draw tourists to the Island during the off-season months.

The two-hour forum began with opening comments by two well-known Island businesswomen — Melinda Sontgerath, owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant, who took the stand that tourism is needed on Vashon, and Bettie Edwards, owner of The Little House, who argued a marketing plan to bring people to the Island is not needed.

“Believe it or not, there are a lot of tourists on the Island, and you don’t even recognize them,” Sontgerath, who’s played a lead role in the chamber’s decision to pursue

a tourism plan, told the crowd.

Tourism is needed, she added, if the Island’s economy is going to stay viable in today’s tough times.

“We are tragically losing Island businesses left and right, and we feel it is our responsibility to extend our customer base beyond the Island consumer,” she said.

Edwards countered that tourism ultimately creates an unsustainable economy. “I believe an economy built on tourism is false, and an economy built on sustainability is strong,” she said.

Noting the chamber paid Blonde Ambition $7,000 to craft the marketing plan, Edwards added she’d rather that the chamber had used that money to drum up Islanders’ support for Vashon businesses.

“This is about the direction we need to be going,” she added. “I think we need to remember the needs of our Island and the size of our Island.”

The Island’s transportation infrastructure — two-lane highways and ferries — doesn’t lend itself to tourism, she added.

Others — including business owners, longtime Islanders and newcomers — then weighed in, with some suggesting tourists have been a positive presence on Vashon for decades, while others echoed Edwards’ concerns that the industry could weaken Vashon’s economic core.

“We want to be a part of this community, and to be a part of it, we do need that extra income that comes from off the Island,” said Nancy Katica, co-owner of Vashon Bookshop, noting that regular tourists already make up a chunk of the shop’s sales.

“We’re trying to find additional resources for our businesses ... We’re trying to find someone thoughtful and considerate to go out there and, quite frankly, spend money and go home,” said Lee Ockinga, the Chamber of Commerce’s executive director. “We’re trying to grow and do everything we can to sustain our community, and there’s just not enough of us. So let’s go and increase the pool of customers.”

“Vashon as a tourist destination really messes with the basic organic wiring of who we are,” countered John VanAmerongen, who introduced himself at the forum as a working business owner.

Vashon’s economy is suffering, he added, because the economy is strapped nationwide.

“Vashon is a small tail on a very large dog, and the dog’s not happy,” VanAmerongen said of the recession.

When tourism is booming, business is good, but if tourism dries up, what’s left of the community is a shell of what it once was, said J.W. Turner, a past president of Preserve Our Islands.

“My hometown today, every single business is out at the edge of town,” he said, referring to Mena, Ark. “Downtown, the biggest industry is plywood to board up the windows. There’s nobody there. Folks, it ruined my town.”

Many Islanders turned out to the community-council sponsored forum to respond to Blonde Ambition’s initial report — a draft, noted Sontgerath, that’s still changing, thanks to input from Islanders at the forum.

Some Vashon residents were concerned that the draft report suggested Vashon needs to be “branded.”

“I don’t want to be branded,” said Amy Wolff, a small-business owner and longtime travel agent.

Annie Brulé, a graphic designer and illustrator, said branding a culture can be very damaging.

“It’s very successful in marketing, but branding a business and branding a community are very different,” she said.

After the forum, Sontgerath discussed Islanders’ comments, including their apparent opposition to branding.

“Who likes to think of being branded? Nobody,” she said. “I think it’s more of an industry term. ... I think branding is more of gaining an understanding of who we are so we understand the person we want to attract.”

The contents of the final marketing plan, which will be available Dec. 17, will be influenced by the comments heard at the Nov. 11 forum, said Sontgerath.

“We’re going through all the information that we’ve gathered, and we’re listening,” she said. “What we heard that night definitely affects our path.”

The impetus behind the tourism plan came this summer, when Sontgerath and others realized some Island businesses were dangerously close to shutting down.

The chamber’s marketing plan will discuss efforts that could best drum up tourist support on Vashon. At the forum, those involved in the effort listed a few ideas that may be in the final plan: creating interesting events on Vashon during the fall and winter, distributing widely a chamber-produced guide to the Island and enhancing the Vashon Web site.

Emmer said she was pleased the event went so well and that the chamber has pledged to incorporate Islanders’ opinions into its strategy to increase tourism.

“I’m really glad we held the meeting, because it allowed different sides to be in the same room at the same time, and each side of the issue got to hear what the other side’s concerns are,” she said. “I think that’s important, and I think thats what the community council is about — allowing people to speak and be heard.”

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