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Port to consider managing Langley fairground

Boat launches, marinas and leasing land for a cell tower, but the Island County Fairgrounds?

In a surprise move Wednesday, Port of South Whidbey commissioners voted unanimously to consider taking over management of the Langley property, a job currently performed by the Island County Fair Association. The decision — approved by commissioners Curt Gordon, Dennis Gregoire and Ed Halloran — was nothing more than a promise to begin a dialogue with county officials, but board members made it clear they were interested.

“There’s great opportunity there as an Island County event center,” said Gordon, president of the board. “It fits the port’s mission, it fits the port’s taxing authority; it is probably prudent at least that we look into this.”

He emphasized that any future agreement with Island County, which holds the deed to the nearly 13-acre fairgrounds, would be limited to stewardship of the property and not orchestrating the annual event itself.

“I want it to be clear that ... we want to support the fair, but don’t want anything to do with running a fair,” Gordon said.

That’s just fine with leading fair association members. Diane Divelbess, president of the group, told The Record Thursday that the proposal was “exciting” as it might be a solution to the funding headaches that have plagued the fairgrounds. The problem is so severe the non-profit association has threatened to back out of its existing lease with the county to maintain the property and its 27 buildings unless the county agrees to provide the group with more money. It is not, however, interested in relinquishing its role of putting on the four-day event.

“We have no intention of not managing the fair —we’re good at it,” Divelbess said.

Wednesday’s decision came at the urging of Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson. The District 2 Republican attended the port’s special meeting in Freeland and said recent discussions about the fairground’s future have made it clear that the county should not be in the property management business, Johnson said.

The commissioner added that she wasn’t there with a formal offer, just a pitch to discuss the possibility of a future partnership.

“What I’m not prepared to do is propose marriage... but I would like to ask the board if we could seriously date — not a one-night stand, but seriously date,” Johnson said.

Earlier this year, fair visionaries unveiled the Island County Fairgrounds Master Plan, a proposal to turn the facility into an island event center over a 10-year period and to the tune of more than $10 million. The plan called for the demolition of about half of the ground’s existing structures.

“What became clear in that process is that for the fairgrounds to reach its full potential, it needs active management,” said Johnson, adding that the port and its mission for economic development may be just the organization to pull it off.

Plenty of concern was voiced by Gordon’s fellow commissioners: Halloran questioned the financial viability of the proposal, and Gregoire the challenges of stacking it onto the port’s existing workload, but both ultimately agreed to investigate further. Gordon, who was involved in the master plan’s creation, argued that the potential for “economic development” — a port’s primary duty —is there but that it’s also a chance to nurture and preserve something precious.

“[The Fairgrounds] is one of the few last cultural pieces that South Whidbey has,” said Gordon.

“What that means is, you don’t go full throttle just because it makes you the most money,” Gordon said. “You gotta make sure you respect the unique rural character and environment of South Whidbey Island, and I think we could do the best job of anybody.”

Divelbess said the association is “quite capable” of managing the property, but not under the terms of its current lease agreement with Island County, which provides just $30,000 per year in capital funding. She maintains the job requires three times that, about $100,000, which is why association leaders recently told the county commissioners they would not renew the existing lease when it expires Sept. 30 unless they are supplied with additional funding. That ultimatum may have been a precursor to Johnson’s proposal.

“The county knows if we don’t get any money, we’ll pull away from property management,” she said.

Divelbess said having a new landlord might result is some initial “do-si-doing” over event schedules, but she is hopeful that such an arrangement would be beneficial to all.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m always optimistic,” she said.

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, a District 1 Democrat, did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, but she’s been in contact with port, and other junior taxing district officials on the South End, including the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District and Langley.

Representatives of those organizations were also willing to talk about possible partnerships, said Price Johnson, but none of them have taken action as formal as a vote.

The commissioner said the financial realities of the fairgrounds remains the same. Revenue from the annual fair is not enough to cover property expenses, and the county needs to find a manager that can take on the task, especially with a September deadline fast approaching.

“Bringing people together to address that is what we’re doing,” Price Johnson said.

 

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