Island County to consider fairground contract next week

The Island County Fairgrounds’ future is shrouded in uncertainty as the county commissioners consider maintenance funding options Monday. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
The Island County Fairgrounds’ future is shrouded in uncertainty as the county commissioners consider maintenance funding options Monday.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

The Island County commissioners agreed Wednesday to find a contractor to manage the fairgrounds for one year.

But how that will shake out has yet to be determined.

Commissioners will weigh the options at their July 21 meeting as part of their discussion of the county’s Capital Improvement Plan.

While Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, South Whidbey’s representative, initially proposed that the county pay for a temporary county employee to manage the fairgrounds, commissioners seemed to find common ground with putting out a request for a contractor at the July 16 work session.

“We have to make a short-term decision about how best to manage it,” Price Johnson said. “I think that we would do well to make a decision today … while we work out the rest of the details for the long term.”

Commissioner Jill Johnson said her preference was to have the request come out of the Port of South Whidbey, but she would also be willing to help fund the position through a South Whidbey agency, such as South Whidbey Parks and Recreation or the Island County Fair Association itself.

“I’m willing to invest some funds in the short term to ensure we don’t drop the ball and partner with others about the future of the fairgrounds because I believe in what the fairgrounds is for South Whidbey,” Johnson said.

Earlier this month, 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.

Fair Association board member Dan Ollis said the group was “saying uncle” on managing the property because it has simply become too costly.

“The property itself has drug those four days of the fair down a road that has made us uncomfortable about putting on a successful event,” Ollis said. “We don’t want to hurt the fair. To us, we can no longer take away from what is our driver to support the off season. We believe its time to put our cards on the table and say we are hurting that four-day event if we continue to do this.”

Ollis encouraged the county to have a “clear vision” for the property before investing too much in improvements.

Earlier this year, fair supporters released the $71,000 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 and was widely unpopular.

Johnson said one good outcome of the plan was the separation of the fair event organization from the fairgrounds management.

“So what I liked about the study is it clearly outlined that the event and the fair association are two different entities,” Johnson said. “Our conversation is about the property.”

Commissioner Aubrey Vaughan seemed to support the move to maintain the property, but said it might be a “tough sell” to District 3 residents who have their own struggling infrastructure like the “blue building” used for community meetings.

“When I’m trying to get a paint job on the blue building… any conversation about that is going to have to include a conversation about my little building over there,” Vaughan said. “I need to be able to tell the District 3 folks that we’re looking at other places.”

Commissioners directed staff to reach out to the port, parks district and fair association to find out what it would take to put out the request and who would be interested.

The board agreed a short-term maintenance plan for the fairgrounds must be in place by Oct. 1.


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