Island County Fairgrounds plan a must, proponents say

Dan Ollis, a fair association director and a member of the fairgrounds steering committee, rests on the bannister of the grandstand at the Island County Fairgrounds. Below the seating is where the alpacas are kept during the annual fair.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Dan Ollis, a fair association director and a member of the fairgrounds steering committee, rests on the bannister of the grandstand at the Island County Fairgrounds. Below the seating is where the alpacas are kept during the annual fair.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

There have been times when it rained so hard that a small pond formed in the horse arena at the Island County Fairground. There is even a photo of someone in a kayak paddling around the dirt-and-sand arena.

Avoiding stormwater drainage problems like that, as well as unused bathrooms and deteriorating buildings, is part of the reason a steering committee of government leaders is proposing a $10.12 million overhaul of the Island County Fairgrounds over 10 years.

The plan, characterized by many as overly ambitious, has sparked criticism from a seemingly wary and skeptical public. Many complain about being surprised or “steamrolled” by the proposal, and remain unconvinced about the reasoning for such a large change to a longtime property.

Why now and what’s the problem? The following is an explanation of just what’s going wrong and why.

‘It’s about the money’

According to fair officials, they are spending more on upkeep than the grounds can draw in revenue, and they warn that at the rate the fair association’s budget is going, it may not make it another five years.

“I hate to say it’s about the money, but it’s about the money,” said Dan Ollis, a fair association director and a steering committee member.

The property, owned by Island County and operated by the Whidbey Island Fair Association, receives $30,000 for its capital improvements every year through a grant issued to the fair association. Other than that, the fair association has an unfunded mandate to operate the county property and annual fair, which is not directly financed with a tax levy.

“Nobody really understands that taxpayer dollars don’t fund the fair,” said Fair Administrator Sandey Brandon, the person in charge of the property’s day-to-day operations and managing the fair.

The nonprofit fair association’s last 990, the tax form for non-profit organizations, shows the revenue brought in from September 2012 to September 2013 was $271,817. Of that total, $206,578 came from program revenue — fair ticket sales, facility rental fees, boat storage — and $59,503 was from contributions and grants. The fair’s greatest expense of $253,601 is spent putting on the fair and maintenance of buildings and the grounds.

That leaves the fair association with $17,173 to reinvest in the property and the coming fair. Combined with the $30,000 generated by real estate excise taxes, requested by the fair association from Island County, the fairgrounds has less than $50,000 for capital projects like new drainage, new roofing and new buildings. By comparison, the new kitchen in the Pole Building — one of the 12 buildings in the proposal that would not be demolished — cost $125,000 last year, which included a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Agriculture.

Attending in droves

Despite the fair leaders’ concerns, people still come to the annual fair in droves. In 2013, the fair, which is the primary source of revenue for the Island County Fair Association, brought in $79,095 in gate receipts. The problem is that the revenue from the fair is relatively flat hovering around $200,000, while potential expenses rise and the buildings become more difficult to market for other off-season uses.

The cost of running the property has already hit the fair itself. For several years, complaints have been lobbed about entertainment during the annual event. Last year, nearly $37,000 — an almost 50 percent cut from 20 years ago — was spent on entertainment and activities such as the Midway Stage acts and roving performers. Rides and games are not filed as expenses because the carnival company pays the fair association, then collects ticket sales and pays a commission on the total. Last year, the fair made about $10,500 in carnival commission.

Ollis said the financial situation is dire and the fair association had to pull money from its “rainy day” fund just to cover fair expenses for this fall.

“By tapping into operations, I think it’s a red flag,” Ollis said.

In past years, rising facilities and maintenance costs were covered by reducing the entertainment budget. But that only goes so far, and fair association directors recently voted to take out a $20,000 margin loan to pay for the property’s utilities and operations. On March 24, fair officials confirmed the fair association had a little more than $11,000 left of that loan.

“When we started tapping into the entertainment budget, I knew something was wrong,” Ollis said.

“It’s not in my training to take money out of a reserve account without a plan to repay it,” he later added.

Stormwater trickles off the horse arena and onto the pavement of the Island County Fairgrounds on March 19. Drainage is a major issue for the property, and backers of a $10.12 million proposal to overhaul the property say it would finally be addressed.

Critics, stormwater

Critics of the proposal charge that the plans call for something too grand, too costly, and something that would not be fully utilized. Wendy Sundquist, a member of the opposition group Friends of the Fair and a longtime fair volunteer, agreed that the fair association does not have enough money to address some of the property’s issues.

But she rejected the idea that the buildings are “rotting from the ground up,” something Sundquist said the proposal’s proponents claim. Recently she had a civil engineer walk through the property with her to evaluate some of the buildings’ structural integrity.

“The only one that had issues was the sheep barn and I had a sense it was not doing well,” Sundquist said, adding that some work was also needed in the alpaca area under the auction grandstand.

“I’m sure there are some buildings that need to be repaired or renovated, but it’s cheaper to do that than build new buildings,” she later added.

Last week during a downpour, the property was riddled with puddles and what fair director Sandey Brandon called “rivers” running through the property. Part of that is design, part of it is not, as stormwater runs along the pavement and out to the street where it can connect with the stormwater lines owned by the City of Langley. But other flow spots, such as on the hill near the Coffman Building where stormwater appeared to be coming out of the grass and not connecting with a stormwater pipe near the fence, are not planned.

Nearly two decades ago, the county commissioned a plan to install a stormwater system at the fairgrounds. The plan, which Ollis keeps in one of his several binders filled with fair history, financial statements, fair association meeting notes and engineering plans, was never implemented, so stormwater continues to pool on the property and run uncontrolled, sometimes into facilities like the Coffman Building until changes were made to some of the drainage where the gutters and downspouts were failing.

“They paid a fortune for the plan and then never implemented it,” Brandon said of the 1996 stormwater plan.

One possible future

The proposal, which would reduce the number of facilities on the property from 27 to 12, is one backers say is the best option available. The vision is to slowly change the property and modernize its facilities, making them more marketable for more events every month of the year. Planned in four phases, the first one would pave the RV parking area, demolish the Gary Gabelein Sr. history barn, sheep, pig, dog, cat and fowl barns for a large configurable space called the Market Place.

“It doesn’t have to make a huge profit, but it has to make enough to put back into the property,” Ollis said.

“I know the property needs a bigger picture plan,” he added.

Combining the animal barns into one configurable space, as described in the proposal, would cut down the property’s footprint and centralize the animal activities in one area. Reorganizing the location of all of the animals to the south end of the 12.8-acre property, supporters of the proposal say, also gives the fairgrounds a better sense of planning. In general, the proposal creates buildings and a property that may be more appealing to other user groups and renters.

“Do they all need to be demolished? No, not all of them,” Brandon said. “Is it my decision? No, not at all … Are they rentable? No.”

“The fairgrounds just sprang up without people having an overall plan,” she later added.

The proposal to overhaul the property, consolidate buildings, relocate barns, pave the RV parking lot and transform the grounds from having only one major event each year to year-round use gives the Island County Fairgrounds a plan, Ollis said.

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