Port still interested, but fairgrounds idea needs more study

Commissioner Dennis Gregoire speaks during a Port of South Whidbey special meeting Wednesday. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Commissioner Dennis Gregoire speaks during a Port of South Whidbey special meeting Wednesday.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Managing the Island County Fairgrounds was an enticing proposition for the Port of South Whidbey.

Before the commissioners would agree to taking over the 13-acre property during Wednesday’s special meeting — a packed affair with about a dozen people crowded into the small conference room at the port’s Freeland office — they asked Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson for more information and more time.

In general, all three port commissioners support the idea of managing the fairgrounds year round, but were hesitant to jump in right away due to several unknowns. Before agreeing to become the facility’s new property manager, the board wants a workable plan for operations, to identify the grounds’ needs and associated costs and have a better idea of just who would use the facility.

Those questions need to be answered, and if they can be successfully, the port may be in good position to take on the job.

“We have a business mindset,” said Gordon, adding that the port district has license to stir economic development that other government agencies do not get. “We have all the talent.”

Funding, however, is one obstacle already identified. Gordon said the port has no room in its 2015 budget to manage the property and that money would need to be found or raised for both maintenance and capital expenses. How much is needed remains unclear and was the reason the commissioners want time to evaluate the property.

Port Commissioner Dennis Gregoire toed a line between rejecting and supporting the largely lambasted 10-year plan to re-imagine the fairgrounds. He praised its thoroughness, calling it “one hell of a document,” while criticizing it for not accounting for the Island County Fairgrounds’ deep roots in the county’s rural and agrarian history.

“There’s a cultural, historic piece that I think has fallen through the cracks,” he said.

Later he cited the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, B.C. as a beacon of how renovating old, historic buildings and creating it for locals can also attract visitors.

“Smaller is better and using older buildings on Whidbey is better,” he said.

Ed Halloran, the newest port commissioner who took over for Chris Jerome after he resigned earlier this year, was more cautious in his endorsement. Having intentionally avoided the Island County Economic Development Council’s fairgrounds plan, Halloran said the fairgrounds must operate as a business. That means that space must make money from its usage.

“Every inch of that property has to pay for itself,” he said.

Parking remains an issue, said Halloran, and would only be exacerbated with more frequent use of the fairgrounds. Falling back on experience with the expansion of South Whidbey Harbor at Langley and needing partnerships for additional parking, he said it’s a headache that would have to be resolved.

“This idea that 3,000 more people will come to the fairgrounds — what the heck are we gonna do with all of them?” he said.

Before Halloran is willing to take on any proposal before the Island County Board of Commissioners, which will have a different makeup next year as interim District 3 Commissioner Aubrey Vaughan remains embroiled in the primary, he said he wanted to have enough facts to support the port’s request. That meant projections of revenue and expense and evaluations of user groups about how often they visit the fairgrounds.

Building infrastructure is the business of port districts, according to Gordon. He spoke of other port districts in Washington that don’t own any waterfront facilities, but instead create places for businesses to operate.

“We’re supposed to provide infrastructure, that’s our job,” he said.

In the case of the fairgrounds, he noted that 11 months out of a year, space in the buildings could be used for some kind of light industry. That would require working with Langley on zoning and permitting.

Any changes would have to come slowly. That was one of several lessons Price Johnson said she learned from the presentation of the Economic Development Council’s fairgrounds plan, along with the passion people have for the property and its buildings.

Recently appointed interim Executive Director Angi Mozer was tasked with creating a process for the port to review the fairgrounds for possible management.

In the meantime, the county is still considering other options, such as hiring a private group or a partnership, such as one proposed with the port district.


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