Animal interests among top concerns for Island County fairgrounds changes

Ray Gabelein speaks during a meeting about proposed fair changes Tuesday, Feb. 18.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Ray Gabelein speaks during a meeting about proposed fair changes Tuesday, Feb. 18.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Animal safety and comfort, failed bonds and adequate demand were among the chief worries spoken at a public presentation Tuesday about drastic changes proposed for the Island County fairgrounds.

A crowd of about 75 people crammed into the Coffman Building to hear and see the plans for restructuring the facility’s management and revamping its structures. Some of the most noticeable changes are a planned reduction of 27 buildings to 12 and the paving of the RV park and campground south of the main fair area.

“We have more facilities than we can use … ,” said Paul Schell, owner of the Inn at Langley and a member of the steering committee that presented the plans.

Much of the down scaling would be achieved by combining former animal barns for fowl, dogs, cats and sheep into one large area with adjustable-size pens. That posed problems for the crowd, which raised issues with the spread of disease and noise. Conceptual designs showed open-air, covered buildings for the animals near the attraction space for rides and carnival games. Damian Cortez said the noise would be disruptive to programs and demonstrations. Another woman, who identified herself as a longtime volunteer with the sheep barn, echoed those concerns.

“These are no longer single-purpose buildings, they are multi-purpose,” countered Norm Landerman-Moore, the consultant who devised the fair’s revitalization plan and presentation.

He added that open-air buildings eliminate the need for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems [HVAC], greatly cutting capital and maintenance costs.

Landerman-Moore didn’t win any points with the sheep barn volunteer when he later anecdotally criticized 4-H programs for allowing children to bring in “boom boxes” to liven up their booths.

Hearing comments about specific interests and concerns, Landerman-Moore directed the different animal groups wanting a say in the specific design to the future governing body. At a later stage, he said, they should have input into the facilities’ design.

In the presentation for an overhauled fairgrounds, the steering committee and Landerman-Moore envisioned a newly created public development authority. Should the group be created by the Island County Commissioners —Commissioner Helen Price Johnson was on the steering committee and attended the presentation — it would be called the Island Event Center Development Authority and have roles as landlord, event producer and promoter.

“We think that this will become a catalyst for hotels, restaurants and other services,” Landerman-Moore said.

The urgency for making $10 million in changes and upgrades over a 10-year span is the looming threat that many of the buildings are deteriorating too fast. Leaders of the Whidbey Island Area Fair Association, the current agency that operates the fair and manages the grounds, said they cannot keep up with maintenance and fair production costs. At the outset of the presentation, fair board member Dan Ollis gave an ominous warning that the major overhaul was necessary to keep the fair running.

“The fair as we know it will cease to exist if we keep going as we have,” Ollis said.

Later, Landerman-Moore echoed that statement.

“There is no other way that is plausible, that is feasible, to save the fair than to get it out of the facility management business,” he said.

During the presentation, Landerman-Moore illustrated the facilities issue with a photo of a toilet and an “Out of order” sign taped to it.

The state of the fair’s facilities was questioned by Ray Gabelein, who argued that not every building on the premises had rotting foundations and would need to be demolished. He and others questioned if demand would cover the cost of building new structures, paving the grassy RV parking area and finding people to manage and maintain the grounds.

Demand for these new spaces and places was questioned. Landerman-Moore said his research showed 980,000 visitors came to Whidbey Island in 2012, and the new fair would attract more visitors from beyond Island County. The primary market area — counties around Island County like Skagit, Snohomish and King — had an estimated population of 4 million people. Landerman-Moore figured a market penetration for festivals, special events, fairs, expositions, trade shows, demonstrations and conferences at 249,200 people.

The need for large conference space was validated by Wayne Ude, the Whidbey Island Writers Association’s master of fine arts program director. Its annual writing conference used to be held on South Whidbey, but as it grew to eventually draw a few hundred people last year, adequate space was hard to find on the South End and the conference was relocated to Coupeville.

“Right now, the lack of space is hampering every arts organization on the island,” Ude said.

The steering committee’s presentation is available for viewing online at Comments may be left there as well.


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