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Welcome to the new Whidbey Island Fair
What’s the Whidbey Island Fair?
That will be the question on many people’s minds Saturday when the Whidbey Island Fair float makes its debut in the Holland Happening Parade in Oak Harbor.
The answer is that it’s the same old Island County Fair, the annual agricultural fair in Langley, but with a new form of management and different relationship with the state and county.
Sandey Brandon has been the hands-on fair manager for several years but now has the title of treasurer of the Whidbey Island Fair Association as well as fair administrator.
The traditional Fair Board, which governed the fair for many years dissolved itself March 12, leaving operations entirely to a newly reconstituted Fair Association with four officers and four directors.
Meanwhile, Island County will still own the fair property, but will no longer be involved in day-to-day fair finances.
“Autonomy,” Brandon said when asked what’s the main benefit of the change. “We can pay our own bills, and on time. Who wants to wait 45 days to be paid?”
Previously, vouchers had to be submitted to the county and approved by the commissioners, a process Brandon said was time consuming, making contractors unhappy. Now, as treasurer, she can pay the bills once approved by the executive committee and contracts can be signed.
The last Fair Board chairperson was Leandra Reuble, a Coupeville resident who teaches school in Oak Harbor. She said the consensus was, “We needed to shift gears in running the fair in 2012. There needs to be a clear bureaucracy.” There was always some confusion about the powers and roles of the Fair Board, Fair Association and Island County commissioners.
As a 4-H leader, Reuble sees the main benefit as the wider participation allowed in area fairs, as defined by the state designation. Entries can come from Skagit, Jefferson and San Juan counties, for example.
Brandon said other county fairs in the state are changing to area fairs, citing the Jefferson County and Benton/Franklin fairs. She expects “area” to drop out in popular usage, and the former Island County Fair will be known simply as the Whidbey Island Fair, which is what the float will be advertising in Saturday’s parade.
“The biggest benefit to me is we can involve people from outer communities to show their animals,” Reuble said. The number of animals on display at the Island County Fair has been on the decline, in part because dairies and larger farms have faded away, and the cost of raising animals has soared.
“This year there are no 4-H rabbits coming to the fair,” said Reuble. “There aren’t any kids that want to show a rabbit at the fair.”
Where once the fair had a dairy barn and a beef barn, now there are only a few cows. “We scrounge them up,” Reuble said. “There’s overall downsizing, it reflects the economy.” It’s not all negative. She said horse entries are “holding their own” and chicken entries are actually up.
The Fair Association will lease the fair’s 12.8 acres, all located inside Langley city limits, from Island County. Helen Price Johnson, chair of the board of commissioners, said the agreement has passed the county’s legal scrutiny process. Once the Fair Association approves, the county can follow suit. It could be a done deal as early as May 7, she said.
Brandon is hoping for an inconsequential lease amount, perhaps $1. “They should be paying us to manage the property,” she said.
Whatever the final agreement, Price Johnson said the fairgrounds will continue to be a valuable piece of public property. The county sets aside $30,000 annually for fair capital improvements and has about $90,000 in the pipeline for the fair, enough to replace two roofs and install a commercial kitchen with the help of grants from the Washington State Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Brandon wants to use some of the money for accessible restrooms.
“We’re making a substantial investment that’s long overdue,” Price Johnson said. Eventually, she would like to see an RV park for tourists when the fair is not in progress.
The new Fair Association is headed by four executive officers including Diane Divelbess as president, Terey Kay as vice president, Marilyn Gabelein as secretary and Brandon as treasurer. The four directors are Dan Ollis, Jason Kalk, MariAnn Mansfield and, as 4-H representative, George Lawson.
In the previous agreement with Island County, the Fair Board had a geographic component, requiring representatives from all areas of Whidbey Island. That is no longer the case, but Reuble supports the change as there were commonly board vacancies due to lack of interest in Coupeville and Oak Harbor.
Price Johnson sees the change as entirely positive, as it will mean less work for county employees and streamline operations while keeping the property in county hands.
“I’m supportive of the Fair Association and we’ll work with them to put on a great fair,” Price Johnson said.
This year’s Whidbey Island Fair will be Aug. 16 to 19. The fair has a new name, but that’s all people will likely notice.
“The fair experience will not change for the fair-goer one iota,” Brandon said.