The Island Event Center Development Authority, the proposed name for the agency that would own and operate the Island County Fairgrounds, would have near autonomy from the county.
As part of the proposal to overhaul the fairgrounds in Langley over four phases and 10 years, Island County would create a public development authority, a quasi-public agency tasked with managing the property and its facilities. Island County would transfer ownership of the 12.8 acre fairgrounds to the authority, effectively removing public ownership, according to members of the steering committee that developed the proposal.
Some notable public development authorities include the Pike Place Market in Seattle and the Woodland Park Zoo, both of which were once city-run spaces.
“They’re a good vehicle to use when you’ve got a good public asset,” said Paul Schell, a member of the steering committee and owner of the Inn at Langley. Schell was also the mayor of Seattle from 1998 to 2001 and worked with prominent public development authorities.
“The county is not in the business of running fairs,” Schell said. “[Likewise] the city said, ‘We’re not in the business of running a market.’ “
Once in possession of the property, the Island Event Center Development Authority could borrow money against the estate by selling revenue bonds to finance its $10.12 million renovation, construction and upgrade plan. While tax exempt, the risk of revenue bonds is that if they went into default, the property could be seized by the bond holders.
Schell said the risk of the property being lost exists even if nothing is done. Fair organizers claim the cost of maintenance and running the annual event exceeds revenue intake.
“The county doesn’t have the money to improve it,” said Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy, also a member of the steering committee. “The county would have to let it go to see that space thrive.”
Island County, however, would be free of any action taken against it by the authority’s creditors.
“It’s basically taking out of politics something that is public,” Schell said. “It’s public enterprise.”
The authority would be governed by a board of directors initially appointed by the Island County commissioners. An exact number of directors was not established in the proposal or given by members of the steering committee. After the initial appointments, the authority’s board would nominate future directors, though Schell said the county commissioners would have the final say.
“This is not envisioned to be an operation to get Uncle Bill from down the street to go and run,” McCarthy said.
Island Event Center directors would oversee the executive administrator, slated to make between $97,000 and $115,000 in the proposal. McCarthy said the executive administrator would be responsible for the other 13 event center employees — a marketing/sales manager, a facilities manager, an administrative assistant, a clerical/secretarial employee, a grounds lead, seven part-time maintenance laborers and a part-time clerk — as well as projecting the economics of the property and its events, marketing and leadership.
The proposed personnel expense, including benefits, was estimated at $621,810. On page 55 of the draft strategic plan, the operations and maintenance expense is tabbed at $1,130,987, however it is projected that up to the 10-year build-out it would bring in $933,175 in retained earnings.
After unveiling the proposal publicly Feb. 18 and hearing a wave of concerns and questions about demolishing more than half of the existing structures and the project’s financing, Schell and McCarthy each said the steering committee decided to schedule more public hearings.
“The first step is, ‘Is this a good idea?’ ” Schell said.
“There needs to be some trust here and understanding that everybody’s goal is to keep the fair going. How we get there is the challenge.”